National animal rights group ad in Fargo shines spotlight on pet store sales of betta fish

A billboard on Fargo's busy 13th Avenue South takes aim at the sale of betta fish by Petco stores. A Petco is located nearby. Dave Olson / The Forum
A billboard on Fargo's busy 13th Avenue South takes aim at the sale of betta fish by Petco stores. A Petco is located nearby. Dave Olson / The ForumDave Olson

FARGO — A billboard on Fargo's busy 13th Avenue South is training a spotlight on pet store sales of a popular pet fish that animal activists maintain are often transported and housed in containers that are small to the point of being cruel.

The billboard in the area of 43rd Street and 13th Avenue South has a picture of a betta in a bowl and reads: "Let me go, Petco. Betta fish suffer in tiny bowls."

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, is behind the billboard, which will be left up for about a month, according to a statement released by the group.

"As long as Petco continues to treat betta fish like mere merchandise, customers will continue to discover dead or dying bettas floating in cramped cups of water on the chain's shelves," PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reima said in the statement.

"PETA is calling on Petco to end its cruel sales of these complex animals," Reima added.

Petco provided a written statement that said:

"At Petco, our commitment to the health and safety of the pets in our care is unwavering and a responsibility we take very seriously.

"We continually review our animal care procedures and standards; and train our teams on and reinforce the critical importance of following those policies at all times," the statement said, adding that to ensure the safety of betta fish the company follows specific specific guidelines regarding proper housing, food and water quality and temperature.

"All of our betta fish are captive-bred. They are able to live in small amounts of water due to a labyrinth gill that allows them to 'breath' air from the surface," the Petco statement said.

The statement also said containers used to temporarily house bettas are the largest in the industry and have been carefully reviewed and approved for temporary housing by Petco's director of veterinary medicine.

"These containers have lids to prevent bettas from jumping out and holes on the lids to allow oxygen exchange with the surface of the water in the cup. Bettas in our stores are checked every hour, and they are provided a veterinary-approved diet," Petco said.

PETA maintained in its statement that investigations of the pet trade have revealed that individual bettas are confined to tiny bags inside boxes that are stacked on top of one another in massive wholesale warehouses.

"The fish are often starved for several days during the transportation process, and many die before or during shipment to retailers, which can take days," PETA said, adding that people who buy bettas are often misled into believing that they should be housed alone, leading to solitary confinement for these fish, "who would coexist peacefully with others in the wild."

An article published on nationalgeographic.com cites recent research at Ghent University in Belgium that identified common issues regarding betta fish welfare.

According to the research, it can be stressful for bettas to share a tank with fish they see as rivals, particularly if they are confined and can’t escape, or they cannot avoid seeing potential rivals in nearby tanks.

Tanks that are too small, or have no environmental enrichment can also harm quality of life for bettas, the National Geographic story quoted researchers as saying.

One of those researchers, Christel Moons, stated it is especially important to set up a tank where a betta has companionship with fish it gets along with, but also has the option of avoiding them.

“You want to look at species compatibility and you also want to make sure that it has the option for hiding. Having said that, it’s the same for all fish," Moons told National Geographic.