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Once Upon A Time, The Catholic Church Decided That Beavers Were Fish

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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From time to time, politicians and other rulers-of-men like to categorize the natural world not according to biology, but rather for convenience or monetary gain. Take, for example, the tomato. The progenitor of ketchup is a seed-bearing structure that grows from the flowering part of a plant. It is, by definition, a fruit. In 1893, however, the US Supreme Court ruled in the case of Nix v. Hedden that the tomato was a vegetable, subject to vegetable import tariffs. Even if the tomato is, technically, a fruit, it tends to be treated in American cuisine as a vegetable, wantonly littering our salads with its jelloey gooeyness.

Corn and rice are another good example. The Bible forbids Jewish people from eating chametz – foods made from wheat, barley, spelt, rye, or oats – on Passover. Ashkenazi Jews consider corn, rice, and legumes, a class of foods called kitniyot, as forbidden on Passover as well. It isn’t that they’re forbidden, per se, but that they’re easily confused for the real thing. As I learned in my high school Talmud class, the medieval Rabbis decided to forbid these not-technically-forbidden grains because of a principle called marit ayin, which literally means “what it looks like.” The Wikipedia explanation is quite good: “While not against the laws of passover to consume kitniyot, a person might be observed eating them and thought to be eating chametz despite the law, or erroneously conclude that chametz was permitted. To avoid this confusion, they were simply banned outright.”

Still, neither the Supreme Court’s reclassification of the tomato is a fruit, nor the medieval Rabbis’ designation of corn and rice as forbidden grains, is the most amusing example of non-scientific categorization. The Catholic Church has them all beat.

There were once between 60 and 400 million beavers (Castor canadensis) occupying the rivers and streams of North America, from the great white north to the deserts of northern Mexico. Then the Europeans came. With them came disease along with an insatiable desire for beaver pelts and for beaver castoreum, a urine-like secretion often used in perfume and cologne. Combined with the once-sustainable hunting of beaver by indigenous North Americans for their meat, the beaver population rapidly declined. (The species is now rebounding, thanks to trapping regulations, and now includes some 6 to 12 million individuals)

In addition to disease, the European settlers also brought Catholicism with them, and successfully converted a large proportion of the indigenous population. And the native Americans and Canadians loved their beaver meat.

So in the 17th century, the Bishop of Quebec approached his superiors in the Church and asked whether his flock would be permitted to eat beaver meat on Fridays during Lent, despite the fact that meat-eating was forbidden. Since the semi-aquatic rodent was a skilled swimmer, the Church declared that the beaver was a fish. Being a fish, beaver barbeques were permitted throughout Lent. Problem solved!

The Church, by the way, also classified another semi-aquatic rodent, the capybara, as a fish for dietary purposes. The critter, the largest rodent in the world, is commonly eaten during Lent in Venezuela. “It’s delicious,” one restaurant owner told the New York Sun in 2005. “I know it’s a rat, but it tastes really good.”

And it’s not just oversized rats that make for good eating in the run up to Easter, either. I have it on authority from my cousin Jerome (who knows everything) that “iguana tail soup is a fave for Lenten meals in Nicaragua.” Yum.

For more on beavers:
Respect the Boundary of the Beaver

For more on bad taxonomy:
Are Sheep Better at Botany than the US Government?

For more on dietary traditions during Lent:
Hyenas Give Up Eating Garbage For Lent, Hunt Donkeys Instead

Naiman R.J., Johnston C.A. & Kelley J.C. (1988). Alteration of North American Streams by Beaver, BioScience, 38 (11) 753-762. DOI:

Worsley P. (2009). The Physical Geology of Beavers, MERCIAN GEOLOGIST, 17 (2) 112-121. DOI:

Image via Flickr/Minette Layne.

Jason G. Goldman About the Author: Dr. Jason G. Goldman received his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Southern California, where he studied the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind in humans and non-human animals. Jason is also an editor at ScienceSeeker and Editor of Open Lab 2010. He lives in Los Angeles, CA. Follow on . Follow on Twitter @jgold85.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. mtzbeavers 12:36 pm 05/23/2013

    Sadly, people have never stopped lying about beavers, ignoring their essential role in maintaining wetlands and biodiversity. The number one google image of a beaver is actually a nutria, and too many wildlife agencies fail to admit that their challenging behaviors can be easily controlled with flow devices. I should know, my own low-lying city was worried about flooding from a beaver dam 6 years ago and installed a flow device which has safely controlled dam height since that time. Now because of our beaver-created wetlands we regularly see otter, steelhead, woodduck and even mink in our tiny urban stream.

    Scientific American should spend lots more time telling the truths about beavers.

    Heidi Perryman
    Worth A Dam

    Link to this
  2. 2. dbtinc 2:46 pm 05/23/2013

    That’s why religion is so silly. Need to bend a canon law? Not a problem.

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  3. 3. N a g n o s t i c 3:02 pm 05/23/2013

    Yeah, those Catholics can be conveniently arbitrary at times, sort of like Obamacare supporters when they classify any church owned and administered facility serving unbelievers as not a church, or those who say that race and gender are states of mind with no biological distinction.

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  4. 4. jgrosay 4:37 pm 05/23/2013

    The royal court’s kitchen heads were in the times were this system flourished, highly experienced in preparing for days of abstinence (refraining from eating meat), noteworthy fridays every week, dishes made with fish, vegetables and other products that were made with the ingredients allowed in the penitence day, but looked and tasted as the meat their customers were supposed to abstain of. I didn’t know about beavers being considered fish, the reason why may have been that these animals live in water, but I was aware that frogs, and frogs’ legs, were considered also fish for the purposes of fulfilling the meat abstinence commandement by the Church. The Bible cites in several places as a valued gift “porpoises’ furs”, as today this is considered absurd, one can propose that the animal the Bible writer called ‘porpoise’ was in fact a seal, seal furs are appreciated even today, told about this to the animal protectionists, and there were, and still are some, mediterranean seals. It’s not surprising that Bible writers were little aware about sea life, taking into account the belief that in the bottom of the seas, leviatan and evil itself inhabited, classics called it later ‘poseidon’ and ‘neptune’, this may be among the causes that hebrew people were amongst the less prone to sailing of the region, and thus a lack of knowledge of sea life can be the reason why of another animal being confused with a whale, whales can’t swallow a man, their esophagus are too narrow for this, and the images of ‘porpoise’ and ‘seal’ mixed.

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  5. 5. RDH 4:57 pm 05/23/2013

    The Church doesn’t take the cake.

    Look how we have morphed the meaning of “wetland”. But my favorite is defining income via “imputed income”.

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  6. 6. M Tucker 6:28 pm 05/23/2013

    This just shows that even in the 17th century it was virtually impossible to get people to have just one vegetarian meal each week.

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  7. 7. Bill_Crofut 6:41 pm 05/23/2013

    As a Traditional Roman Catholic (not an historian) the tale of the beaver has piqued my curiosity. What is the source of the information shared on this web page? The Catholic Encyclopedia contains no information about beavers:

    Link to this
  8. 8. Squish 7:30 pm 05/23/2013

    Great article Jason. Here are a few more:

    When I studied Japanese in Japan I was surprised that the counter for rabbits is 羽 (all nouns have specific counters connoting their shapes, etc. – all other small animals are counted using 匹, “hiki”).

    That character used to count rabbits, pronounced “wa,” looks a little like wings, and that is what it means: by itself it means wings and it is also used for counting birds. Presumably since rabbits have ears that look like wings, they were counted as birds instead of animals. I was told that in the past when Japanese monks refrained from eating mammal flesh due to Buddhism, they could still eat rabbits as they were “birds.”

    In a similar vein 猪 – “inoshishi,” or the wild boar – was obviously forbidden meat, but ironically sold at markets as kosher 山鯨, “mountain whale.” I say ironically because whales were thought of as fish not mammals, evident by the two radicals that make up the kanji for whale, 魚 and 京 – “fish” and “capital.”

    Thank goodness things are much more rational now – corporations are people, lobbying is free speech and, in some regards, pizza is a vegetable!

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  9. 9. Monica Metzler 12:27 am 05/24/2013

    Excellent to know! But ‘beavers as fish’ just fits with the origin of the ban itself. I remember learning in religion class in Catholic high school how fishermen – as sharp businessmen – essentially lobbied the pope to get fish declared as ‘not meat’ and so escaping the ban. Thus setting the stage for all those other tasty critters to be subsequently declared fish.

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  10. 10. jh443 4:01 am 05/24/2013

    This article reminds me of a joke I heard years ago:

    A Jewish man moves into a strict Catholic neighborhood. Every Friday, the Catholics practically go crazy – because while they’re morosely eating only fish, the Jew is in his backyard barbecuing steaks. So, the Catholics work on the Jew to convert him.

    Finally, by long endurance, the Catholics succeed. They take the Jew to a priest who sprinkles holy water on the Jew and intones, “Born a Jew… Raised a Jew… Now a Catholic.”

    The Catholics are ecstatic. No more delicious but maddening smells every Friday evening! But come the following Friday, the scent of barbecue wafts through the neighborhood. The Catholics all rush to the Jew’s house to *remind* him of his new diet. They find him standing over the sizzling steak, knife in one hand, his other hand dipping in water. He sprinkles water over the meat, saying, “Born a cow… Raised a cow… Now a fish!”

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  11. 11. Scienceisnotagenda 9:45 am 05/24/2013

    Native people where I live did not ‘love their beaver meat’….it was a meat eaten when little else was available. Far higher in rodent delicacy was porcupine.

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