Garra rufa fish nibbles feet of one of the employees at the Kai Thai Fish therapy spa in Parktown north. The owner was told by the SPCA that he needs to obtain a performing licence for his flesh-eating creatures or risk closure. Picture:Paballo Thekiso

First the National Council of SPCAs (NSPCA) informed a Joburg fish spa owner that he needed to obtain a performing licence for the fish that nibble on his clients’ dead skin cells in novel pedicures.

Now Ron Hutchinson says the council has told him to remove his fish tanks from the windows of his spas in Randburg, Greenside, Parktown North and Parkhurst because performing fish should not be seen by the public.

“The SPCA have told us to remove all fish from the spas as they are in the public view,” said Hutchinson, the owner of Kai Thai Spas, which operates in Joburg and Durban.

”When we questioned what this means, the answer received is that performing fish cannot be seen by the public… I think they’re going over the top now… We’ve got the tanks in the window and when people walk past, it’s quite an attraction.”

But Andries Venter, the manager of the NSPCA’s special projects unit, rejects Hutchinson’s claims. “It’s not the fact they are being exhibited, but the fact people pay to be treated by these fish allegedly and this is a problem in terms of the Performing Animals Protection Act.

“They need to stop what they’re doing – basically allowing people to put their hands and feet into the tanks – until such time as the legal issues are resolved,” says Venter. The NSPCA has issued notices to other fish spas.

The Saturday Star reported last week that the SPCA told Hutchinson he needed to obtain a performing licence for his fish spa in Monte Casino, where thousands of garra rufa, “doctor” fish imported from Thailand, are used. Hutchinson has battled to get the licence, and has had to stop operating at the casino.

The NSPCA has asked the health minister to investigate the spas following concerns raised in the UK and US that the treatment could spread HIV and hepatitis C. “The concern lies with the fact that the fish eat off one person’s skin and immediately after, another person is exposed to the same fish and water,” it says.

It has written to magistrates not to issue the licences until a definitive report is received, which Hutchinson terms “extremely underhanded”. He has vowed to sue the NSPCA for loss of earnings and has warned he will have to retrench eight staff members who care for the fish.

Venter maintains there are several welfare concerns. “These fish can live for seven years, but only live for six months because of the ongoing cleaning and chemicals of the tanks.”

But Hutchinson says he cares for his fish and there is no proof of human harm. “I’m also writing to the health minister for proof this transmits disease. It’s impossible and the risks are very slight… Educating the public is one thing. Scaremongering is another.” - Saturday Star