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Even with restrictions in place, students have long played drinking games that incorporate the spirit of Withington’s original bet, chasing with beer just as their parents’ generations did. At Colby College in Maine, swallowing goldfish is a tradition during Doghead, an annual booze-soaked St. Patrick’s Day celebration with murky origins. A Petco employee in the nearby town of Augusta told me that he’s learned to spot Colby students shopping for Doghead goldfish each March and tries to avoid selling them any. (He asked to remain anonymous, since he’s not authorized to speak for Petco.) Several other pet stores in the area carry only other types of fish.
In 2014, PETA implored Colby to put an end to the Doghead tradition. The college has noted that it does not sanction or support Doghead, and that “swallowing live goldfish is unsafe and at odds with Colby’s institutional values.”
Fish swallowing hasn’t been limited to campuses. Kate Paschal, the mother of one of my colleagues, remembers swallowing a goldfish at a youth-group event in the mid-’80s. She says that the youth pastor at her evangelical church in Iowa suggested the activity and sent parent chaperones out to purchase the fish. “Only a few of us participated,” Paschal says. “But I was the one who would tend to do stuff like that … It was pretty slippery and slimy. But I was probably too full of adrenaline to think about the taste.”
A few cases of goldfish swallowing have resulted in police involvement. On January 8, 21-year-old Maxwell Taffin was arrested and charged with animal cruelty for allegedly swallowing a friend’s pet fish in a Louisiana State University dorm room. A year ago, a British man faced similar charges for a fish-swallowing video uploaded to Facebook.
The dubious legality of gorging yourself on goldfish raises an odd question: Where is the line between pet fish and food fish? Swallowing goldfish poses little health risk, and the fish are hardly rare or endangered. In other parts of the world, live seafood remains a delicacy rather than a crime. Korean sannakji is a specialty dish of live octopus served freshly dismembered (and still squirming) beneath a garnish of sesame oil and toasted sesame seeds. Odori ebi, or “dancing shrimp,” half-drowned in sake, are eaten in both Japan and Thailand. Yet many countries, including a few where these dishes have originated, have struck them from the menu over animal-cruelty concerns.
Living creatures with highly effective defense mechanisms, meanwhile, seem obviously unfit for consumption. The man who swallowed the catfish is now alive and well, though he has been careful not to share his name publicly, for fear of retaliation from animal-rights activists. The fish itself wasn’t so lucky: It died from either an onslaught of beer or simply being outside its tank for too long.
Even so, the fish has achieved eternal fame at the nearby Natural History Museum Rotterdam, where it remains a top attraction at the Dead Animal Tales exhibit, a grisly array of some of humankind’s most unfortunate encounters with the animal kingdom. The fish is mostly intact, but its tail mysteriously disappeared during the ordeal. It might have been the only part of the fish to actually make it down. The Intercollegiate Goldfish Gulping Association would be proud.