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Compassion for the lowly carp Fish: Opposition to the bashing and suffocating of carp, the traditional Czech Christmas meal, is growing.


PRAGUE, Czechoslovakia -- It's difficult to muster much sympathy for the humble carp, but in a country where millions of the lowly river fish are consumed every Christmas Eve, carp compassion is growing.

While virtually every family in the Czech Republic will gather for the nation's traditional Christmas Eve dinner of fried carp and potato salad, this year a few voices are being raised in protest: The mass slaughter of fish is unbecoming, they say, and in many instances the carp suffer terribly before they're carved up and dipped in the deep fryer.

"Fish are able to feel pain, and the whole process can be terribly painful for them," says Radovan Vales, chairman of the Czech League for the Protection of Animals. "When they're transported and handled, they often don't have enough water, and they can't breathe."

It would be a stretch to call the growing opposition to the annual carp massacre a movement, but animal protection league members have been speaking out against the fish slaughter. In Brno, the Czech Republic's second city, an ecological group is ++ passing out brochures urging citizens to have a vegetarian Christmas and offering recipes for dishes such as soy- and cabbage-burgers and potato pancakes.

Even some confirmed carp eaters express at least a bit of remorse at the bloodshed.

"I don't like to see it killed," Agata Koci says, turning her back as her Christmas carp is clobbered over the head with a mallet at a Prague market. "But I like the way it tastes."

The Christmas carp trade is big business in the Czech Republic, and opposing it is akin to Americans taking a stand against Thanksgiving turkey. Newspapers and television news programs follow the progress of the carp from fish farms in southern Bohemia to market. Companies issue regular bulletins on the expected price per kilo of first-class carp.

To fill the plates of the country's millions of carp consumers, enormous tubs overflowing with 2-foot-long fish sprout on the sidewalks and squares of every Czech town as Christmas approaches. The smell of dead fish competes with the more pleasant aroma of wood smoke, pine boughs and hot mulled wine at Christmas markets, while water mixed with scales and carp blood flows into the gutters as vendors prepare the fish for sale.

This quaint custom is the problem, animal rights activists say. Instead of simply going to the supermarket and buying a fillet from the refrigerator or freezer, Czechs prefer to buy their Christmas carp live. The transportation to market and storage before sale can be extremely stressful for the fish. In nearly every stage, they are crammed into small tubs or tanks with little water and too many fish.

In the town square of Prague's Zbraslav district, for example, customers crowd around the tubs choosing their carp as vendors clad in soaked overalls pluck out one fish after another with a net. The vendors dump each flopping carp onto a scale to be weighed, then pound it on the head, insert a knife in its back to cut its nerves and quickly remove the scales from the skin. Done correctly, even opponents acknowledge, the killing likely isn't too painful.

But many people prefer to take their carp home to swim in the bathtub for a couple of days before Christmas Eve. Stuffed in a plastic bag while the buyer finishes shopping, the carp can't breathe. In the tub, the water is usually too warm and not changed often enough, suffocating the fish.

And finally, on Christmas Eve, amateur fish executioners often grab their piscine quarry by the gills to stop it from flopping about -- terribly painful, experts say.

"Some people try to scale the fish alive," said veterinarian Ctirad Mikes. "And in one case, at the customer's request, a vendor tried to squeeze the eggs out of a live female carp."

State authorities have tried to curb the worst excesses in the carp slaughter. They've issued a leaflet telling vendors how to care for the fish in tubs and how properly to kill them. They carry out regular controls on the markets and can levy fines of up to 50,000 crowns ($1,500) against offending vendors. Last year, though, the controls netted only five offenders, according to the Czech Commission for Animal Welfare.

Some customers prefer to buy a fish, let it swim in the tub for a few days and then free it in the nearest river or pond. But experts say most carp have been so traumatized by the time they're released that they probably don't survive.

"People think they're doing something good for the fish, but I'm not so sure they are," said the animal protection league's Radovan Vales. "After the stress of the transport, the tanks and then the bathtub, and then the fish is just dumped into the polluted river. The fish is very weak by that time."

Don't tell that to Jirina Steindlerova, who bought the smallest carp in the Zbraslav tank for release into the Vltava River after her family has polished off one of its bigger brethren on Christmas Eve.

"We always have carp on Christmas," she says. "But at least this one will go free. I guess it makes us feel a little better."

At the Zbraslav market, meanwhile, vendor Miroslav Koptik says he tries to treat the carp as well as he can and suggests that customers let him do the killing.

Then leaning on his net as he watches Steindlerova walking away with her live fish, Koptik chuckles. "I don't think people really like carp that much anyway," he muses. "They just have a couple of bites because they think they have to. Personally, I don't touch the stuff. I prefer goose for Christmas."

Pub Date: 12/24/97

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