The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He faced animal cruelty charges for abandoning a pet in N.C. But state law doesn’t protect fish.

A man was charged April 4 with multiple counts of animal cruelty after he vacated a home last month in Wilmington, N.C. and left his pet fish behind. (Video: WECT 6 News)

Michael Ray Hinson was the one who got away, prosecutors announced Tuesday.

Hinson was charged April 4 with multiple counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty after he vacated a home last month in Wilmington, N.C. He left behind a pet oscar fish that was discovered malnourished, diseased and living in “deplorable” conditions.

State prosecutors combed animal cruelty statutes while Hinson, 53, posted a $4,000 bond for release.

Laws protect dogs, roosters, rabbits, baby chicks and other fowl specifically, but broadly, the state defines animals as “every living vertebrate in the classes Amphibia, Reptilia, Aves, and Mammalia except human beings.”

There is one glaring exception, New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David said.

Fish, which are the only vertebrates not included in the law.

David dropped charges of animal cruelty and abandonment against Hinson, though he criticized the alleged behavior that endangered the fish.

“We take a very dim view of anyone who would abuse any creature great or small and appreciate [animal services] enforcement of the laws to protect vulnerable animals,” David said in a statement.

Hinson could not be reached for comment.

The world’s most-trafficked mammal may also be its most obscure — and agents just found 14 tons

Authorities previously said they believed this was the first time animal cruelty charges in the county involved a fish.

Lt. Jerry Brewer, a spokesman for the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, has previously said Hinson was evicted March 22 from his home in Wilmington.

Three days later, deputies went to check on the home and discovered a fish tank in “deplorable” condition, Brewer said. He said the oscar fish that was living inside it was not in good health; it was later determined the fish was suffering from hole-in-the-head disease, which is commonly caused by a parasite.

Authorities took the pet to the Fish Room, an aquarium in Wilmington, where employees have been treating it.

Fish Room employee Ethan Lane told NBC affiliate WECT that when this fish was brought in, “he was in pretty bad shape.”

"Hole in the head is a parasite that starts in the intestines and works from the inside out, slowly killing the fish,” he said.

Lane told the State newspaper that the fish has since been put on a proper diet and is being treated with medication. Lane told the newspaper that the fish is suspected to have survived in its former home by eating cockroaches that fell into the tank, though police said that has not been confirmed.

Lane said oscar fish, which can grow longer than 12 inches and live up to 20 years, are “great pets.” He estimated that the recently rescued fish is about a year old.

“We call them wet pets,” the employee told WECT. “They are very trainable. They have huge personalities. Some of them can be aggressive.”

Read more:

Orphaned elephants need milk. These baby-mother pairs might have the formula.

A 17-foot, 140-pound python was captured in a Florida park. Officials say it’s a record.