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SPEAKING FOR THOSE WHO CAN’T SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES

SPEAKING FOR THOSE WHO
CAN’T SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES

Rescuing the overlooked

Profile by Susan Barzallo

Friends of Philip Fish Sanctuary, located in Santa Rosa, California, is run by Gwendolyn Church and her partner, Leland Peterman. Like so many of us, Gwendolyn grew up with bettas in bowls and tiny tanks, thinking pet stores were sources of expertise on animals. And, if they say betta fish are happy all alone in a little bowl with no heat or filtration, it must be true.

After graduating college in 2015, Gwendolyn became vegetarian and then vegan the following year. Vegan for the love of animals, she began volunteering at a local farmed animal sanctuary, dreaming of someday starting a sanctuary of her own.

Dreams are meant to be realized. As Gwendolyn 
put it, “I’d read online about someone having success adopting a sick betta from a large chain pet store. I thought this sounded very doable for me because while I didn’t have acreage for cows, I certainly had the space for a ten-gallon aquarium. I began researching fishes and aquarium keeping and learned about the 
nitrogen cycle and other important components of betta care (like that they need a heater!). I planned to set up an aquarium, cycle it (a 4-8-week process), then have 
it ready for a fish in need.

“At the time, I didn’t understand the scale of the problem facing bettas and other small animals exploited by the pet industry. I assumed it would take me a while to find a fish in need of adoption, but during my very first trip to the pet store I saw, among the dozens of bettas in tiny cups on the shelf, a fish who was pale, listless, incredibly underweight, and missing most of his fins due to severe rot.

“I pulled him from the shelf and nervously approached management to ask about adoption. To my surprise, they said yes, and I left the store with the betta. I ran to another store to frantically purchase the equipment I needed, then got home to set up my first aquarium and begin the ‘fish-in cycle’ process. I fretted and stressed over that little fish for weeks, determined, despite my inexperience to give him the chance he deserved. With what I now know to be 
a certain degree of luck, he recovered.

“That fish is, of course, Philip. He is still with us today, doing fabulously, and is the inspiration for everything we do.”

Gwendolyn initially taught herself how to take care of bettas by researching online. She spent a lot of time on Reddit and the subreddit on bettas. Through SubReddit, she learned what proper care actually looks like: water quality, the nitrogen cycle, and proper aquarium maintenance.

She says, “The tragic reality of the aquarium trade is that the largest cause of the issues we see in fishes is poor care and neglect. Bettas are particularly affected by this because they are said to be ‘too aggressive’ to cohabitate with other fishes in the store tanks. So, they are instead kept in tiny plastic cups with less than 8 ounces of cold water. In reality bettas are tropical fishes who need warm tanks with space to swim and explore. They are indeed too aggressive to keep with other bettas, but many will do well in tanks with other compatible species of fish.

“My go-to for information on fishes and their care is our fabulous aquatic veterinarian, Dr. Sanders of Aquatic Veterinary Services. Like most people, I didn’t realize that fish vets even exist, so working with Dr. Sanders has been absolutely wonderful. There’s a huge amount of misinformation online about fish disease and treatment, along with a shocking amount of home treatment recommendations that you simply don’t see for terrestrial animals. Many pet stores and specialized fish stores sell antibiotics and other medications that are not well regulated or controlled, and these are used by home aquarists to treat disease without an official or professional diagnosis. Sadly, the poor value that we collectively place on the lives of these animals means that many people do not consider them worthy of veterinary care, so countless fishes suffer as a result of well-intentioned but inappropriate home treatment.”

Friends of Philip Fish Sanctuary has grown to 26 permanent aquariums and two ponds, along with four temporary tanks used for quarantining or new intakes until they are ready for the general population. They have freshwater tanks only, Gwendolyn says, because saltwater fishes are far more expensive than freshwater, so it is uncommon to find people willing to surrender instead of selling them. It is a possibility in the future, however.

Gwendolyn takes care of running the sanctuary, but she has much support from her family and her partner, Leland, saying she could never do it without all their help. She handles the day-to-day feeding, aquarium maintenance, social media, and organization. Leland is a constant source of support in maintaining the house, their dogs, cooking, and especially, as she says, “being the shoulder I cry on when we’ve experienced another loss and so few others understand 
or empathize with the grief of losing ‘just a fish.’” Gwendolyn’s parents and younger brother help care for the animals while she is away or stuck at work, her older brother created the logo, and her eldest brother helps with organization and coordinates pick-ups and rescues further away.

Her daily routine requires feeding each tank twice a day and doing checks on the fish at the same time. “I’ll look at each individual to verify that they’re active and eating well, observe community tanks to verify that no one is being bullied, and that everyone’s fins and body look good, and generally just observe the behavior of our fishes. Just like any animal, fishes have unique personalities and individual preferences, so building a relationship and monitoring them over time is the best way to keep them healthy and happy.”

Friends of Philip will not purchase a fish, which only perpetuates the cycle of abuse, but instead asks 
a pet store to surrender for adoption fishes that are languishing or sick and cannot be sold. It can be a difficult process convincing store employees to let a fish go without receiving money for it. Gwendolyn says this about rescuing fish from pet stores: “For a store rescue, usually of a betta, the main thing that I aim for is a consistent focus on the individual in need. I always avoid blaming employees or store managers for the state of the fishes, because ultimately the problem is not any individual employee, manager, or store, but the larger business model that exploits and profits off these fishes in such a brutal and cruel way. I’ve found that many employees and managers truly disagree with the way the fishes are treated but are not given any other choice. Often, these are the same people who are genuinely thrilled to see a fish go to 
a loving home.

Percy, before and after his rescue

“When I find one or more fishes in poor condition, which is essentially every trip into the store, I’ll remove them from the shelf and approach an employee or manager. I’ll tell them that I noticed that the fish looks like he/she really isn’t doing well, then point 
out the specific issues—fin rot, buoyancy issues, clamped fins, incredibly pale, etc. From there, I ask 
if I can either take the fish home as an adoption to give them a chance, or if the employee or manager can take them to treat them and change their water. 
I make sure to specifically ask to take the fish as an adoption, as sometimes managers will instead offer discounts on fishes who are not doing well. Ultimately, if the manager is clear that they will or cannot allow me to adopt the fish, I request that they change the water in the cup and treat the fish if possible. Of course, I can’t guarantee that any of that care actually happens, but it’s the best I can do for the fish in that situation.

“When I’m at the store and considering which fish to request as an adoption, it ultimately comes down to a tragic and heartbreaking decision based on only the appearance of the fishes and who is most likely to be released. I’ve found that fishes who have very clear physical problems like severe fin rot, clear infections (fuzzy spots, missing scales), and sometimes severe buoyancy issues are the most likely to be given as free adoptions.

These fishes are least likely to be chosen by a person looking to purchase a beautiful fish and are most likely to continue to languish and ultimately die on the shelf. I’ve never had a store release a fish who is clearly lethargic and stressed but appears physically healthy, though it is not uncommon to see dead fishes with no apparent physical symptoms.

“The hardest aspect of the exchange is when the store cannot or will not allow me to take the fish home. I’ve considered purchasing discounted fishes many, many times but ultimately have always chosen to walk away. It’s absolutely gut wrenching to leave 
a fish knowing that they will almost certainly die, and I’ve had the experience of returning to a store the following day to see a fish I asked to adopt dead on the shelf. While I can’t guarantee that coming to us would have saved her, she certainly deserved that chance as much as every other fish.”

Gwendolyn offers this advice to anyone looking to rescue a fish from a pet store: “Ultimately, I urge anyone who is interested in trying to rescue a fish in this way to thoroughly research the needs of these animals and to have a home prepared and ready for them.

“Rescue of this sort is incredibly heartbreaking and can be very emotionally taxing. The loss rate is incredibly high even with access to a certified aquatic veterinarian because the fishes come to us in such poor condition. On average, around a third of the 
bettas released to us by stores pass within the first week. Their tiny bodies have been through so much before coming to us that sometimes all we can do is keep them comfortable in their final hours and hope they know that they are loved.”

She adds that the tragedy is these poor fishes would probably have lived if they had simply received proper care sooner. Most do not need serious medical care, but only clean, warm water and consistent care.

Friends of Philip also takes in pet surrenders—a fish that can no longer be cared for. Unfortunately, they cannot accept every fish in need. Sometimes there simply is not enough room or proper aquarium set up for a particular species of fish. Additionally, some fish, like goldfish, plecos, and cichlids grow very large. A common goldfish can grow to be a foot long and live for twenty years. The sanctuary will 
not take any fishes unless they know for sure they have the room and can properly care for them for their entire lives. They do have some larger species but are very careful to not have too many individuals and overcrowd the tanks and ponds. A bigger sanctuary in the future will allow them to take in more of these types of surrenders.

Recently the sanctuary acquired a GoPro camera that allows Gwendolyn to film the fish underwater. The camera is able to capture the fish in ways that cannot otherwise be seen. It is a different perspective on the fishes, seeing directly into their world. She says, “I think many people dismiss fishes and their capacity for emotions, so to be able to capture our residents’ curiosity on camera is exciting and will hopefully help to expand other peoples’ views of these sensitive creatures.” Gwendolyn also loves 
that the GoPro allows up close observation that may 
be missed during regular feeding and checking times.

Friends of Philip is small right now, but Gwendolyn and Leland will be moving soon and will hopefully have more space to expand. They hope to rescue many more pets and smaller species of fish as they do now, but they also have plans to provide proper homes to some larger fish, perhaps even rescued from the food industry. Additionally, they would love to someday have the capacity for other aquatic and terrestrial animals such as amphibians, but the focus will always be fish, as they are the most overlooked.

Friends of Philip is fortunate to have caring donors who help so much with their support. They have a small group of wonderful donors on Patreon, and commonly receive one-time donations or gives from their Amazon wish list. They are so grateful because the donations make it possible to accept fishes with health issues that may require access to medical care.


Friends of Philip featured on GeoBeats. The response has been wonderful for them, increasing followers and support. Gwendolyn also did a podcast interview with Hope Bohanec’s podcast “Hope for the Animals” Microsanctuary Series.

Please find links below to follow Friends of Philip and/or make a donation.

Instagram
Facebook
Patreon
All links

Gwendolyn recommends the following sources for anyone interested in fishes or in rescuing them:

Veterinarian
Fish Feel, a fabulous fish advocacy organization (whose site was designed by our founder Laura 
Moretti)
It’s Not Just a Fish, a “pet” fish advocacy group promoting good practices (note that they aren’t specifically a vegan organization, but do have excellent information on critical things like the nitrogen cycle, tank maintenance, fish care, etc.)
What a Fish Knows by Jonathan Balcombe


“I think it’s impossible to overstate the mistreatment and dismissal of fishes in our world. Frequently, even in animal rights circles, our treatment of fishes is reduced to the environmental impact that overfishing has on the oceans and, consequently, on us. While environmental issues are always worth considering and taking 
seriously, I think we lose something important when 
we reduce fishes to their collective mass in tons 
removed from the oceans each day.

“We often overlook the very real and important 
experience of every fish who is violently pulled from 
its home in a net or left to languish as a decoration on 
a kitchen counter. I believe that a critical component 
of changing our behavior and treatment of fishes is 
to encourage the view of each fish as an individual whose life has inherent worth.” —Gwendolyn Church, 
Friends of Philip Fish Sanctuary


If you liked this article Please share it!

Rescuing the overlooked

Profile by Susan Barzallo

Friends of Philip Fish Sanctuary, located in Santa Rosa, California, is run by Gwendolyn Church and her partner, Leland Peterman. Like so many of us, Gwendolyn grew up with bettas in bowls and tiny tanks, thinking pet stores were sources of expertise on animals. And, if they say betta fish are happy all alone in a little bowl with no heat or filtration, it must be true.

After graduating college in 2015, Gwendolyn became vegetarian and then vegan the following year. Vegan for the love of animals, she began volunteering at a local farmed animal sanctuary, dreaming of someday starting a sanctuary of her own.

Dreams are meant to be realized. As Gwendolyn 
put it, “I’d read online about someone having success adopting a sick betta from a large chain pet store. I thought this sounded very doable for me because while I didn’t have acreage for cows, I certainly had the space for a ten-gallon aquarium. I began researching fishes and aquarium keeping and learned about the 
nitrogen cycle and other important components of betta care (like that they need a heater!). I planned to set up an aquarium, cycle it (a 4-8-week process), then have 
it ready for a fish in need.

“At the time, I didn’t understand the scale of the problem facing bettas and other small animals exploited by the pet industry. I assumed it would take me a while to find a fish in need of adoption, but during my very first trip to the pet store I saw, among the dozens of bettas in tiny cups on the shelf, a fish who was pale, listless, incredibly underweight, and missing most of his fins due to severe rot.

“I pulled him from the shelf and nervously approached management to ask about adoption. To my surprise, they said yes, and I left the store with the betta. I ran to another store to frantically purchase the equipment I needed, then got home to set up my first aquarium and begin the ‘fish-in cycle’ process. I fretted and stressed over that little fish for weeks, determined, despite my inexperience to give him the chance he deserved. With what I now know to be 
a certain degree of luck, he recovered.

“That fish is, of course, Philip. He is still with us today, doing fabulously, and is the inspiration for everything we do.”

Gwendolyn initially taught herself how to take care of bettas by researching online. She spent a lot of time on Reddit and the subreddit on bettas. Through SubReddit, she learned what proper care actually looks like: water quality, the nitrogen cycle, and proper aquarium maintenance.

She says, “The tragic reality of the aquarium trade is that the largest cause of the issues we see in fishes is poor care and neglect. Bettas are particularly affected by this because they are said to be ‘too aggressive’ to cohabitate with other fishes in the store tanks. So, they are instead kept in tiny plastic cups with less than 8 ounces of cold water. In reality bettas are tropical fishes who need warm tanks with space to swim and explore. They are indeed too aggressive to keep with other bettas, but many will do well in tanks with other compatible species of fish.

“My go-to for information on fishes and their care is our fabulous aquatic veterinarian, Dr. Sanders of Aquatic Veterinary Services. Like most people, I didn’t realize that fish vets even exist, so working with Dr. Sanders has been absolutely wonderful. There’s a huge amount of misinformation online about fish disease and treatment, along with a shocking amount of home treatment recommendations that you simply don’t see for terrestrial animals. Many pet stores and specialized fish stores sell antibiotics and other medications that are not well regulated or controlled, and these are used by home aquarists to treat disease without an official or professional diagnosis. Sadly, the poor value that we collectively place on the lives of these animals means that many people do not consider them worthy of veterinary care, so countless fishes suffer as a result of well-intentioned but inappropriate home treatment.”

Friends of Philip Fish Sanctuary has grown to 26 permanent aquariums and two ponds, along with four temporary tanks used for quarantining or new intakes until they are ready for the general population. They have freshwater tanks only, Gwendolyn says, because saltwater fishes are far more expensive than freshwater, so it is uncommon to find people willing to surrender instead of selling them. It is a possibility in the future, however.

Gwendolyn takes care of running the sanctuary, but she has much support from her family and her partner, Leland, saying she could never do it without all their help. She handles the day-to-day feeding, aquarium maintenance, social media, and organization. Leland is a constant source of support in maintaining the house, their dogs, cooking, and especially, as she says, “being the shoulder I cry on when we’ve experienced another loss and so few others understand 
or empathize with the grief of losing ‘just a fish.’” Gwendolyn’s parents and younger brother help care for the animals while she is away or stuck at work, her older brother created the logo, and her eldest brother helps with organization and coordinates pick-ups and rescues further away.

Her daily routine requires feeding each tank twice a day and doing checks on the fish at the same time. “I’ll look at each individual to verify that they’re active and eating well, observe community tanks to verify that no one is being bullied, and that everyone’s fins and body look good, and generally just observe the behavior of our fishes. Just like any animal, fishes have unique personalities and individual preferences, so building a relationship and monitoring them over time is the best way to keep them healthy and happy.”

Friends of Philip will not purchase a fish, which only perpetuates the cycle of abuse, but instead asks 
a pet store to surrender for adoption fishes that are languishing or sick and cannot be sold. It can be a difficult process convincing store employees to let a fish go without receiving money for it. Gwendolyn says this about rescuing fish from pet stores: “For a store rescue, usually of a betta, the main thing that I aim for is a consistent focus on the individual in need. I always avoid blaming employees or store managers for the state of the fishes, because ultimately the problem is not any individual employee, manager, or store, but the larger business model that exploits and profits off these fishes in such a brutal and cruel way. I’ve found that many employees and managers truly disagree with the way the fishes are treated but are not given any other choice. Often, these are the same people who are genuinely thrilled to see a fish go to 
a loving home.

Percy, before and after his rescue

“When I find one or more fishes in poor condition, which is essentially every trip into the store, I’ll remove them from the shelf and approach an employee or manager. I’ll tell them that I noticed that the fish looks like he/she really isn’t doing well, then point 
out the specific issues—fin rot, buoyancy issues, clamped fins, incredibly pale, etc. From there, I ask 
if I can either take the fish home as an adoption to give them a chance, or if the employee or manager can take them to treat them and change their water. 
I make sure to specifically ask to take the fish as an adoption, as sometimes managers will instead offer discounts on fishes who are not doing well. Ultimately, if the manager is clear that they will or cannot allow me to adopt the fish, I request that they change the water in the cup and treat the fish if possible. Of course, I can’t guarantee that any of that care actually happens, but it’s the best I can do for the fish in that situation.

“When I’m at the store and considering which fish to request as an adoption, it ultimately comes down to a tragic and heartbreaking decision based on only the appearance of the fishes and who is most likely to be released. I’ve found that fishes who have very clear physical problems like severe fin rot, clear infections (fuzzy spots, missing scales), and sometimes severe buoyancy issues are the most likely to be given as free adoptions.

These fishes are least likely to be chosen by a person looking to purchase a beautiful fish and are most likely to continue to languish and ultimately die on the shelf. I’ve never had a store release a fish who is clearly lethargic and stressed but appears physically healthy, though it is not uncommon to see dead fishes with no apparent physical symptoms.

“The hardest aspect of the exchange is when the store cannot or will not allow me to take the fish home. I’ve considered purchasing discounted fishes many, many times but ultimately have always chosen to walk away. It’s absolutely gut wrenching to leave 
a fish knowing that they will almost certainly die, and I’ve had the experience of returning to a store the following day to see a fish I asked to adopt dead on the shelf. While I can’t guarantee that coming to us would have saved her, she certainly deserved that chance as much as every other fish.”

Gwendolyn offers this advice to anyone looking to rescue a fish from a pet store: “Ultimately, I urge anyone who is interested in trying to rescue a fish in this way to thoroughly research the needs of these animals and to have a home prepared and ready for them.

“Rescue of this sort is incredibly heartbreaking and can be very emotionally taxing. The loss rate is incredibly high even with access to a certified aquatic veterinarian because the fishes come to us in such poor condition. On average, around a third of the 
bettas released to us by stores pass within the first week. Their tiny bodies have been through so much before coming to us that sometimes all we can do is keep them comfortable in their final hours and hope they know that they are loved.”

She adds that the tragedy is these poor fishes would probably have lived if they had simply received proper care sooner. Most do not need serious medical care, but only clean, warm water and consistent care.

Friends of Philip also takes in pet surrenders—a fish that can no longer be cared for. Unfortunately, they cannot accept every fish in need. Sometimes there simply is not enough room or proper aquarium set up for a particular species of fish. Additionally, some fish, like goldfish, plecos, and cichlids grow very large. A common goldfish can grow to be a foot long and live for twenty years. The sanctuary will 
not take any fishes unless they know for sure they have the room and can properly care for them for their entire lives. They do have some larger species but are very careful to not have too many individuals and overcrowd the tanks and ponds. A bigger sanctuary in the future will allow them to take in more of these types of surrenders.

Recently the sanctuary acquired a GoPro camera that allows Gwendolyn to film the fish underwater. The camera is able to capture the fish in ways that cannot otherwise be seen. It is a different perspective on the fishes, seeing directly into their world. She says, “I think many people dismiss fishes and their capacity for emotions, so to be able to capture our residents’ curiosity on camera is exciting and will hopefully help to expand other peoples’ views of these sensitive creatures.” Gwendolyn also loves 
that the GoPro allows up close observation that may 
be missed during regular feeding and checking times.

Friends of Philip is small right now, but Gwendolyn and Leland will be moving soon and will hopefully have more space to expand. They hope to rescue many more pets and smaller species of fish as they do now, but they also have plans to provide proper homes to some larger fish, perhaps even rescued from the food industry. Additionally, they would love to someday have the capacity for other aquatic and terrestrial animals such as amphibians, but the focus will always be fish, as they are the most overlooked.

Friends of Philip is fortunate to have caring donors who help so much with their support. They have a small group of wonderful donors on Patreon, and commonly receive one-time donations or gives from their Amazon wish list. They are so grateful because the donations make it possible to accept fishes with health issues that may require access to medical care.


Friends of Philip featured on GeoBeats. The response has been wonderful for them, increasing followers and support. Gwendolyn also did a podcast interview with Hope Bohanec’s podcast “Hope for the Animals” Microsanctuary Series.

Please find links below to follow Friends of Philip and/or make a donation.

Instagram
Facebook
Patreon
All links

Gwendolyn recommends the following sources for anyone interested in fishes or in rescuing them:

Veterinarian
Fish Feel, a fabulous fish advocacy organization (whose site was designed by our founder Laura 
Moretti)
It’s Not Just a Fish, a “pet” fish advocacy group promoting good practices (note that they aren’t specifically a vegan organization, but do have excellent information on critical things like the nitrogen cycle, tank maintenance, fish care, etc.)
What a Fish Knows by Jonathan Balcombe


“I think it’s impossible to overstate the mistreatment and dismissal of fishes in our world. Frequently, even in animal rights circles, our treatment of fishes is reduced to the environmental impact that overfishing has on the oceans and, consequently, on us. While environmental issues are always worth considering and taking 
seriously, I think we lose something important when 
we reduce fishes to their collective mass in tons 
removed from the oceans each day.

“We often overlook the very real and important 
experience of every fish who is violently pulled from 
its home in a net or left to languish as a decoration on 
a kitchen counter. I believe that a critical component 
of changing our behavior and treatment of fishes is 
to encourage the view of each fish as an individual whose life has inherent worth.” —Gwendolyn Church, 
Friends of Philip Fish Sanctuary


If you liked this article Please share it!