All teachers want to enrich their classrooms, enhance their lesson plans, excite their students, and make learning more fun. But keeping animals as class “pets” is never a good idea, no matter how common or how well intentioned it is. There are countless reasons why animals don’t belong in the classroom—and that includes fish. Siamese fighting fish (aka “betta fish”) are popular classroom animals for all the wrong reasons: Many people mistakenly believe that they are easy to care for, can survive by eating plant roots alone, or can live in vases or small bowls. As a result, they’re sentenced to dull, lonely lives and slow deaths by starvation, as the food they’re given is insufficient and the containers they’re confined to are unsuitable for any fish.
The pet trade treats these sensitive living beings as nothing more than commodities. Pet shops, big-box stores, florists, and websites sell them in cramped cups or flower vases to consumers who have no clue how to provide them with proper care—which is much more complex and expensive than most people realize.
Betta fish are native to Asia, where they naturally live in the shallow water of rice fields, ponds, and slow-moving streams. Since the water is shallow, it’s also warm—which is why, in captivity, bettas require temperature-controlled water as well as good filtration. They also appreciate enrichment such as caves, rocks, and live plants, and the aquarium must be cleaned regularly.
On top of all that, any animal living in a classroom is likely to experience a great deal of stress. The bright lights, noise, and chaos of a classroom setting combined with dozens of inexperienced little hands makes for an unpredictable and risky situation, and the likelihood of the animal falling victim to an accident or even abuse is high. Plus, transporting bettas safely during weekends or school breaks can be difficult—but leaving them alone in a classroom should never be an option, either, as they are sensitive to temperature changes, need to be fed and cared for, and can fall ill.
TeachKind has been alerted to numerous instances in which betta fish suffered in the classroom—including one in which a biology teacher allowed students to put incompatible bettas in the same tank to watch them fight (see below). The fish were then sent home with “anyone who wanted them.” We also learned of a betta fish who died in a preschool classroom because the teacher didn’t know enough about bettas to realize that the fish was sick, which happens fairly often.
It’s never OK for educators or anyone else to risk the life and welfare of sentient beings by treating them like teaching tools or classroom novelties. As a compassionate educator, you have the power to start changing these harmful attitudes by refusing to allow animals in your classroom.
The following comments and anecdotes, written by teachers, students, parents, and others, were compiled from various online forums by the TeachKind staff—and they all illustrate exactly why the classroom is a dangerous place for bettas.
The classroom just isn’t a safe environment for a betta fish, as there are many uncontrollable factors—everything from the water temperature to the behavior of the students and fellow staff members:
- “The fish we had last year died. I did everything right but I think a classroom is a tough environment.”
- “[One] issue is children or even authorized adults switching the aquarium off. I have put labels on the plugs to say they should not be unplugged but it still happens. A couple of days ago I found the light plug was not in the timer so the lights had been on 24/7 the last week and algae had proliferated.”
- “We got our MiID [mild intellectual disability] class a beta, and they were really stinky! We had to wash out the tank almost everyday. That being said, I think that one of my students with autism snuck and overfed them everyday.”
When fish are kept in improper conditions by people unaware of their needs, it can be lethal—as was the case for these bettas who jumped out of tanks:
- “RIP Kory. He was our classroom fish and somehow managed to jump out over the weekend… We miss you little buddy.”
- “I have a 2.5 gallon aquarium with heater and filter. I have had a betta, but I have guppies this year. My last betta jumped to his death, and we found his petrified body stuck to the wall behind my bookshelf at the end of the year. Poor guy!”
Some teachers keep betta fish in virtually unlivable conditions in which their needs aren’t met at all:
- “I work at a preschool. Everyone complains about their bettas [dying] in the classrooms, I try and offer advice, since they’re all in tiny bowls…. Everyone ignores me because they’re catty and ‘they know what they’re doing.’ It hurts my heart.”
- “I just rescued this [betta] today who I’ve decided to name Tardis. His/her backstory is a sad one. Tardis was a classroom pet for over three years and never once got a tank clean/filter cartridge change. Not once. In three years. On top of this, because Tardis was a classroom fish, he/she would get fed countless times a day in massive portions. Needless to say the already tiny tank was absolutely disgusting. The water level also never got topped off, or if it did not nearly enough as it was nearly half empty. I am pretty sure Tardis has fin rot (or something akin, as his fins are in rough shape) and [I] would appreciate any and all feedback on tank conditions.”
Other teachers simply don’t know what they’re getting themselves into—and it’s always the fish who suffer:
- “I found out today that one of the teachers at my school has a betta. I had a feeling I knew where this was going…😑 I went to see him, and he wasn’t in a bowl! He was in a … 3g tank? Maybe 2.5g. It was that stupid ‘hydroponics’ tank, however. No heater, no filter, and he has mild fin rot. I offered to take him off her hands and she said sure. She ‘can’t take care of him over the summer.’ Imo, she should’ve never got an animal if she couldn’t take care of [one].”
- “I recently rescued a betta from the daycare where I work. The teacher … realized she bit off more than she could chew and was worried the children would knock him off the shelf.”
- “My [significant other] is a teacher and a parent got her a betta for the classroom. Well it’s summer and we had to bring the fish home with us but I think he’s sick. He was a bright red but now he’s pale. From the little bit of research I’ve done he’s not in the best of housing conditions either, He’s in a 2.5 gl tank.”
- “My church has a betta in a classroom. I rescued [him or her] last summer—they had [the fish] in a tiny tiny jar, cloudy and slimy. I brought [the fish] back when school started again in a much bigger bowl, with a plant, appropriate food, and thorough instructions. The teacher was very appreciative. [S]he did not take poor care on purpose, she did what she thought (or was told by wherever she [made her purchase]) was right.”
While some teachers get bettas in order to teach students about responsibility, many are inadvertently imparting the wrong lessons—in fact, some students leave the classroom with horror stories about neglect and the improper treatment of living beings:
- “Every time I see something about a betta in a classroom I think of my high school CHEMISTRY teacher. You’d think someone who teaches chemistry all day would know about a nitrogen cycle but one day he had a small maybe just under a gallon tank. He let it sit with water to ‘let the chlorine evaporate’, then put a poor betta fish in it. The fish lasted less [than] a week. Sadly I never once questioned him and assumed a science teacher knew how to handle a fish.”
- “This year, my math teacher got a betta fish as a surprise gift from another teacher from a website called donors choose. Of course, she had no idea how to care for betta fish. The fish even came in a small 1/5 gallon plastic ‘betta tank’ thing. I tried to help her by offering to take care of the fish over winter break. Luckily I could. A few months later, Spike is now mine [because] SHE got tired of taking care of him, yet I was the one to take the time to actually make sure he had a clean tank and food each … day.”
In some cases, betta fish are actually used as part of cruel classroom experiments and treated like nothing more than inanimate teaching tools:
- “Ugh, those poor bettas they brought in for my senior year advanced biology class 🙁 First they put them in those tiny divided contraptions, then we were encouraged to remove the divider to see them fight for a few seconds. OF COURSE some of the stupid guys in the class decided ‘a few seconds’ meant ’15 minutes’ and tried to get the bettas to kill each other. After this lesson was over the bettas were offered up to anyone who wanted them, and I just had to grab 2 because I was worried the boys would take them and fight them after school. I ran to the lost and found for some Nalgene bottles and took the two home. Sadly they both jumped out of their tanks soon after that (at the time I didn’t know bettas were so good at jumping) and they died, but at least they both had a week or two of living in a nice place before they died.”
- “Many years ago when I was in high school I took a parenting class. For part of our grade we had to get a betta or a goldfish and pretend it was our child. We [were] required to bring our fish to school everyday and check them into daycare in the classroom. So everyday we had to transport a fish in a jar, in the winter time to put on a shelf in the class room for 12 weeks. When the class was over I put my buddy in a 2.5 gallon tank with a filter but no heater because I did not know better. He was my first betta, and lived for 3 years after. I can’t believe a school would ever make students be so cruel to a living thing. It’s been a long time … and I hope the school no longer does this.”
Teachers sometimes raffle off or simply give away betta fish (and other classroom “pets”) at the end of the school year or simply as prizes to uninformed students and their equally uninformed families:
- “My son won the class betta fish, named Mario. I pick him up tomorrow. He has lived all his life in a vase with some marbles and a bamboo plant. I have already gone out and bought him a 5 gallon tank with a low flow filter, and plan on using real plants. What else do they need for happiness? I want him to feel like he has won the lottery, not us!”
- “These are really resilient fish and we use them in science labs to explore the scientific method (give them fish, a mirror, markers, timers, etc. and the students design an experiment). The students really like it and the ones that get the highest quiz scores over the material get to take a fish home with them!”
And of course, leaving betta fish alone in a classroom during a school break, over a weekend, or even overnight can easily result in disaster:
- “I have had many [bettas]. [T]hey don’t take much work and the kids love them. My problem is they turn our heat off on Friday at 4 and it’s off until Monday morning and they would get too cold. We have a few buried in the grass on the side of our school. It’s hard to bury in the snow. Hmm, maybe I should try again and bring [the fish] home on the weekends. They are so pretty to watch too.”
- “I bought a blue beta and I’m glad I did because the darn thing died over spring break. Luckily I was able to find another one that looked similar and the kids never knew the difference, lol.”
- “When I was in [kindergarten] we had a [betta] and they painted the room over spring break. When we came back a layer of paint covered the entire top of the water ([the fish] was in a bowl).”
- “So I’m a pre-k teacher and I started at a new school. Classroom had a fish. They were feeding it on Fridays. It was left there over break. Little guy doesn’t look too well off. So I took over caring for him knowing nothing about fish. Looked up a bit and I’m still learning.”
Have you ever wondered how you’d handle a classroom “pet” betta fish in the case of an emergency? In one case, a teacher (who’d already admitted that a classroom “pet” in her care had died after being left unattended over a school break) had an emergency, and it ended in tragedy for the animal:
“Okay, so my co-teacher has a family emergency back in her native India. I regretted agreeing to take care of NemoDaddyHotwheels before she even asked. [She said,] ‘The last time I left for vacation, the fish died.’ Well, I’m [no] fish expert but I’m not surprised. He was being kept in an unheated, unfiltered half gallon pet carrier. Not once since his introduction [to] the classroom (late September) had I seen her change his water. His tank was bare … but littered with uneaten food. He barely moved and never ate. I was afraid that anything I did—wrong or right would kill him. … Unfortunately, original NemoDaddyHotwheels died between the half hour drive home and the half hour I went to Petco to get Betta water and an aquarium heater because I freaked out he was on his side. 🙁 Turns out my house is much colder than our classroom. Or perhaps, even though I’d tried to siphon off most of the water from the bottom of the aquarium, there was just too much accumulated ammonia in a smaller volume of water and it killed him. Anyway, I brought his poor sad little body back to Petco hoping they’d help me revive him somehow but instead stupidly left with a new look-alike instead of waiting until after Thanksgiving break. I mean, I still had his remains to do a comparison against. 🙁 “
The bottom line is that some teachers see bettas not as individual beings with the capacity to suffer but as replaceable classroom props—as illustrated by this teacher’s callous comment:
“I don’t mean to sound sinister, but what’s the worst that could happen to the fish. If you have a particularly rough weekend or vacation and the fish actually dies, then you can get another one for about 3 dollars. Sad, I know.”
Betta fish are sensitive, sentient beings who deserve better. There is no appropriate lesson that can be taught with a classroom “pet” that can’t also easily be taught using humane methods. A classroom simply isn’t a suitable setting for any animal.