A sculpture on display at the new Mesa Arts Center incorporates live fish inside tiny individual cells — and animal lovers are not happy.
Shiny blue and red betta fish spend their days nearly motionless in the fat part of five customized light bulbs that hang from a metallic chandelier bolted inside a hallway display case.
The fish — with long, flowing tail fins — stretch from one end of their miniature containers to the other. Tiny LED fixtures illuminate each bulb from above with a blue glow that does not heat the water inside.
"The first thing that I get from most people is that it’s cruel," said the artist, Darrell Tousley, who teaches five classes a week in the welding and sculpture studio next to the display.
But Tousley said the perception of cruelty advances the message of the sculpture.
"Sometimes," he said, "the world we live in is cruel."
Tousley said the light bulbs in his sculpture, titled "Pent Epiphany," symbolize human ideas. He said ideas are alive and beautiful — like the fish — and sometimes people get trapped within their ideas.
Other East Valley betta exhibitions also have stirred controversy.
Children at Shadow Mountain Elementary School in northeast Phoenix complained in 2002 when they discovered that a north Scottsdale restaurant displayed betta fish inside glass jars on each table. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals got involved, and the restaurant quickly removed the jars.
Laura Brown, who manages PETA’s Domestic Animals and Wildlife Department in Norfolk, Va., said the Mesa Arts Center sculpture also exploits animals.
"Animals in captivity certainly suffer," she said. "We’ve seen betta fish displayed in many hideous ways. No matter how small and pretty they are, they should not be used for decoration."
But the Mesa Arts Center sculpture does not worry Matt Vestal, assistant aquatics manager at Pets Inc. in Tempe.
"These fish can handle very cramped quarters and very poor water quality," Vestal said.
He said the natural habitat for betta fish includes Asian rice paddies with small puddles of water, and betta fish come to his store packed in tiny plastic bags that each contain only a few ounces of water.
Bettas, sometimes called Siamese fighting fish, are "labyrinth fish" with a special organ that enables them to breathe air through the surface of their bodies. This adaptation allows them to thrive in shallow water with low oxygen content.
Vestal said people originally bred betta fish as fighters, and the animals will attack each other if kept in the same aquarium. He said they are now bred for their bright colors.
"They’re not as mean anymore as their reputation states, but they can’t live together," he said.
Male betta fish cost $3.99 each at Pets Inc., but Vestal said more exotic varieties sell for as much as $50 online. He said the fish typically live three to four years and require food about two or three times per week.
Tousley, who describes himself as an animal lover, said his fish have lived inside their light bulbs for four months and are well cared for. He said he unscrews the bulbs every three days to change the water and add food.
"People keep these little guys in globes all across the nation," he said.
All of Tousley’s sculptures incorporate motion in some format and usually include materials salvaged from common household items. He has built elaborate bowling ball tracks two stories high, a clay pot that flings out pingpong balls put inside and an industrial-strength kaleidoscope.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals outlines its position on the captivity of betta fish at