Read the original article by Michael Brice-Saddler at washingtonpost.com here.
The animal rights activist who chucked a fisherman’s catch into a lake last year to “save the fish’s life” now has to pay a $500 fine and court costs.
In a viral video from July 2017, activist Michael Leaming and his family are seen confronting two men as they legally fish at Crescent Lake Park in St. Petersburg, Fla.
A little boy, who the Tampa Bay Times reported is Leaming’s son, Landon, approaches the two men and asks: “Did you know that fish feel pain?”
The seven-minute exchange that follows is packed with memorable lines from all parties involved. Throughout, a freshly caught tilapia flounders on the ground.
“You guys just gonna let this fish die like this?” Leaming asks the men. “What if this was a dog, and I hooked her in the mouth and threw her in the water?”
“I don’t eat dogs,” one of the men responds.
Leaming asserts that he and his family don’t eat animals because “all animals have the same ability to feel love and pain,” just like humans. He compares the dying fish to a toddler, suggesting the fish has “the same ability and same emotions as a human child.”
One of the fisherman, clearly irritated, states that he disagrees and responds, “It’s not a human child.”
The argument intensifies when Leaming calls fishing an “unjust law” — just like slavery was unjust for African Americans, he says. He also mentions the Garden of Eden at one point. The fishermen tell Leaming to stop harassing them.
“I’m not harassing you. You’re harassing this fish right here,” Leaming says, gesturing toward the tilapia. “This is my duty, and my duty is to speak up for animals in need!”
Impassioned, Leaming grabs the fish and throws it back in the water. The family threatens to call the police.
“Call the police! I just saved a fish’s life! How about that?” Leaming shouts. “How about that?”
Prosecutors played a video of the incident, which was viewed millions of times online, during Leaming’s nonjury trial Friday, the Tampa Bay Times reported. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission referred the case to the State Attorney’s Office, which originally charged Leaming with “interference with taking of fish.”
On Thursday, the charge was changed to petit theft, according to the Times. Defense attorney Peri Sedigh argued in court, “This wasn’t theft; this was a rescue.”
One of the fishermen, Robert Hope, testified that he had caught the fish and planned to cook it for dinner. He had forgotten the bucket he normally uses to hold his catch, he said, and had asked his son to retrieve it from the car. At the same time, Landon Leaming, now 10, saw the fish fighting for its life and asked his father if he could approach the fishermen, leading to the confrontation, the Times reports.
Judge Robert Dittmer withheld adjudication to keep Leaming’s record clear, adding that he understands people are passionate about some issues. According to the Times, Leaming could have been sentenced to 60 days in jail, six months probation and mandatory counseling.
A fish and wildlife investigator estimated that the fish was worth $6, according to the Times. On top of the $500 fine, Leaming will also have to pay court costs. He told the Times he was happy not to have a guilty verdict but found it unfair to face a theft charge when he was preparing for the interference claim, which he was “sure he would have won.”
Earlier, Michael Leaming, his wife and their two children participated in animal rights events in Pinellas Park, Fla., which included a chaotic protest inside a Chick-fil-A. Vegan and animal advocacy groups showed up to support the Leamings during Friday’s trial.