SINGAPORE: Gripping the limp arowana firmly in one hand, Mr Jaime Lim made an incision in the sclera, or the white part of the eye, with a pair of manicure scissors. He then pressed against the eyeball until globs of pink and white appeared from the slit.
And in quick, deft strokes, he confidently trimmed off the fatty tissue. The globe of the eye was then realigned and the same procedure was done to the other eye.
In a short span of 20 minutes, he had given the unconscious longyu or Dragon Fish (what the Chinese call arowana) an eye lift and three other cosmetic procedures – enlarging its fin and tail with a syringe needle, as well as removing its blemished scales with a pair of forceps. All this done inside a plastic blue tub along an HDB corridor.
“It’s not hard to learn to do an operation on the fish. And we get to gain more knowledge to bring happiness to the hobbyists,” said the 35-year-old owner of Paradise Arowana in Lim Chu Kang.
Mr Lim is among a handful of ornamental fish traders here who perform cosmetic and medical procedures on fish, usually on the more expensive Asian arowana and Japanese koi.
Such practices are commonly known to fish hobbyists, but remain relatively unheard of outside the circle. These beauty measures have raised a few ethical and legal concerns, with some believing that the job should be left to licensed professionals such as vets.
Indeed some koi breeders CNA Insider spoke to admitted to providing such services, but declined to elaborate, partly out of concern over reactions.
'LIKE CARRYING A NEWBORN'
Hobbyist Desmond Yee, whose S$1,000 super red arowana was just operated on by Mr Lim, was visibly excited by the prospect of having the “perfect” fish. The procedures, he said, were necessary as his arowana “still got a few parts to touch up”.
His chief concern was that his arowana might overdose on the anaesthesia and not wake up, something he said had happened to other hobbyists.
“I was a little worried but I trust him,” he added, beaming after the anaesthesia had worn off and the groggy fish was back to its usual self.
I can see a lot of difference, now there’s no more popping up of the eye. It’s like carrying a newborn baby.
It was when more fish hobbyists like Mr Yee started to request for cosmetic procedures, that Mr Lim decided to head to Indonesia to learn from an arowana expert four years ago.
“In the old days, the older people just wanted to rear the fish to be nice,” he said. “Now people are on a different level - they want their fish to be perfect and defects-free.”
The training in Indonesia took about two hours and when Mr Lim returned, he started performing such procedures for his clients, often making house calls. In the past four years, he has had no fewer than 200 “fish patients”.
“This is a job that brings joy to the hobbyists. We feel happy when we see the fish look nicer and healthier when they recover,” said Mr Lim, who typically charges about S$120 for a house visit.
WATCH: An arowana getting 'beautified' (4:32)
'BETTER THAN A DOCTOR'?
Problems commonly associated with arowanas include the ‘drop eye syndrome’ where one or both of its eyeballs are continuously tilting downwards.
There are a few suspected causes for this: High-fat diet given to the fish, genetics, or environmental factors. In the tank, uneaten food often sinks to the bottom and over time, the arowana might develop a habit of constantly looking down.
While Mr Lim performs these procedures once or twice a week, arowana trader Eugene Ng said he sometimes handles a few cases a week.
In the local arowana circles, Mr Ng is better known as Dr Ark, after a pet store that he runs. A banner over his shopfront states 'Fish Clinic’. Mr Ng claims to have pioneered the practice in Singapore 18 years ago, when he was asked to help beautify an arowana for a competition.
He picked up his skills by reading up on such procedures, practising on fish and exchanging pointers with other arowana traders.
“I’m not a doctor but people named me Dr Ark because they think I do better than a doctor,” he quipped.
He also thinks that giving the fish a better appearance is “a good deed”. “The owner will be more affectionate to them,” he said.
Like any lady who does plastic surgery, it’s to gain more love from their loved ones.
Other than cosmetic procedures, hobbyists also turn to Mr Ng for medical procedures when their fish develop swim bladder problems or when they are injured.
Arowanas affected by the former are unable to maintain buoyancy and tend to float nose down, tail up, upside down - or they sink.
“My main concern is to rescue and save the fish,” said Mr Ng. “In fact, I don’t charge a single cent if I can’t save the fish.”
DO FISH FEEL PAIN?
However, without the necessary skills and knowledge to assess the condition of these fish, these traders are at risk of causing them more harm, said Dr Frederic Chua of Allpets and Aqualife Clinic.
For example, while Mr Lim and Mr Ng say that they use anaesthesia to immobilise the fish, Dr Chua said that it is unknown if the solution they use has an analgesic effect, which is to prevent pain.
“How do they know that when the fish is knocked out, they do not feel pain?” asked Dr Chua.
Both Mr Lim and Mr Ng cite online literature that suggests that fish do not feel pain.
“To a lot of them (people) this is cruelty to the fish. But I hope to explain that fish brains are so small that they don’t react to pain,” explained Mr Ng. "During the operation we use medication to put the fish to sleep.”
However, Dr Chua holds the view that fish do respond to pain.
“Fish have pain receptors on their skin and certain parts of their body. And there are nerves that send these pain messages to the brain. But these network of nerves are not as complicated or complex as you find in warm-blooded animals," he said.
We have the impression that fish don’t perceive pain the way warm-blooded animals do, but we cannot say fish suffer no pain at all.
“If they feel pain, they will respond by struggling, trying to swim away. Sometimes they quiver or tremble," he added.
THE QUESTION OF ETHICS
Dr Zeehan Jaafar, a lecturer with the biological science department at the National University of Singapore, said that scientific literature corroborates the theory that fish do feel pain.
She believes the procedures undertaken by these fish traders have not undergone scientific scrutiny in terms of efficacy and impact to the fish.
“Individuals performing these surgeries may be experts by trade, but they are not held to standards that one might expect from professional veterinarians,” she said, adding that the possible risks include infection, scarring and possibly death.
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), when contacted, said that having experience with animals does not necessarily mean one has adequate medical knowledge to carry out work of a veterinary nature.
“Cosmetic surgery ... is unnecessary and is a form of animal exploitation,” said its executive director Jaipal Singh Gill. “Surgery for medical purposes, for example to treat diseases, should be carried out by a licensed veterinarian.”
He cited section 53(1) of the Animals and Birds Act where it is an offence to “treat, vaccinate, or inoculate any animal or bird” unless one is licensed to do so. Fish fall under the definition of animals in the Act.
In Dr Chua’s view, “if one were to do an invasive procedure for the sake of just beautifying the animal without improving its quality of life, then it becomes an ethical issue.”
He himself has performed fewer than 10 cosmetic procedures on fish since 1995, mostly on koi and luohan (flowerhorn fish), and one arowana with fin overgrowth. He turned down some requests because of possible "post-operative complications that would result in unnecessary distress and suffering for the fish”.
“Ethically, if one regards fish as living animals which potentially suffer pain and distress, then... we shouldn’t be letting inexperienced hands handle such situations,” he said.
'WE ARE HELPING THE FISH'
But to Mr Ng, people like him are helping the fish and their owners.
“When the pet fish develops a defect, the owner will tend to neglect the fish and maybe not like the fish that much,” he said.
"So I’m just doing a good deed by correcting the appearance, to make it look nicer, so it gains more affection from the owner."
WATCH: Eugene Ng on why it's good for the fish (1:00)
The Agri-food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore, when contacted, said that it has received one piece of feedback on cosmetic procedures on fish, and that it is investigating.
“We will not hesitate to take enforcement action if there is any animal welfare issue,” said the agency.
Under section 42(1)(d) Animals and Birds Act, anyone found guilty of wantonly or unreasonably causing any unnecessary pain or suffering to any animal can be fined up to S$15,000 and/or jailed for up to 18 months.
Dr Chua acknowledged that even with regulations in place, enforcement would be difficult.
"Maybe we should start by educating people about the necessity of doing these procedures," he said. “There’s no point regulating something when you don’t have the ability to police.
“(But) when we educate people on the merits or the disadvantages of doing certain things, then the demand for unnecessary cosmetic procedures would not be there anymore."