18 July 2017

Portrait: Michael Faure and his fish

If you enter the house of Michael Faure, professor of Comparative and International Environmental Law, you will find aquariums in virtually every room, kitchen and even bathroom. He owns more than thirty of these microcosms that are filled with exotic fish, among other things. What started as a hobby at the age of fourteen has clearly gotten out of hand. For Michael Faure, being an aquarist is a way of life.

“Last weekend, my nine-year old son, Tonny, asked how many fish we actually have”, he says. “He tried to count them, but we ended up guessing. It must be at least a few hundred.” Faure’s specialty, so to say, is African cichlids that only come from Lake Malawi and Lake Tanganyika. These are so-called mouthbrooders, meaning that the female incubates fertilised eggs in her mouth for three or four weeks, during which she is not able to eat. It is a process which continues to fascinate Faure, but there is more. “These fish have magnificent colours and an interesting character”, he says. “It’s compelling to see how they interact; males, for instance, can be quite aggressive towards each other. Besides, they know me pretty well.”

One might wonder whether it is possible to bond with a fish. The answer, according to Faure, is a firm yes. “When I or one of my family members approach the aquarium, the fish will swim to the surface of the water”, he explains. “Yet, when there are strangers around, they’ll hide out of fear. The bigger the fish, of course, the easier it is to feel a connection. My nine giraffe catfish eat right out of my hand and really look at me, so that’s a very personal experience. They’re quite big - they can grow up to eighty centimeters long - and intelligent animals. I love them.”

Arnold, the snapping turtle
Faure’s passion for all sorts of water dwellers started out rather conventionally, with the good old goldfish. He soon became bored, however, and opted for saltwater fish instead. Not long after that, he discovered the fun of keeping cichlids and never looked back. As a student in Antwerp, he met his now longtime friend, Flor, at the shop where he used to buy his fish. “Together, we became members of the Belgian Cichlid Association”, Faure recalls. “It was the seventies, and once a month the members met up in a smoky bar for, let’s say, a presentation. It’s a lot of fun to pursue your hobby with friends.” When he met his then-colleague Marc Daenen at Maastricht University, it was the beginning of a new chapter.

“As Marc is quite exotic himself, he also likes exotic animals”, Faure laughs. “A couple of years ago he asked me to adopt Arnold, a snapping turtle that’s 1.20 metres long and who’s named after Arnold Schwarzenegger - because, just like Schwarzenegger, Arnold the turtle has huge arms. And he’s a real bastard, I can tell you. The only thing he wants to do is attack and bite. But he can’t help it; it’s in his DNA.” Long story short: Faure decided to adopt Arnold, had a customised aquarium built for him - with a very solid cover - and Arnold has since been perfectly happy, as well as aggressive.

A family affair
The Faure home also harbours a friendlier turtle - seven of them, to be precise. Faure: “These softshell turtles are the opposite of Arnold. They have a cute, intelligent little snout. As they’re very sensitive and need good care, we always take them with us on holiday. In addition, we have axolotls, also known as Mexican salamanders, who are living in an aquarium on the dinner table and in aquariums in the bathroom.” It is as clear as day that the whole family is involved, and enjoying it. Especially Faure’s son, Tonny, is enthusiastic. “At the moment, we’re trying to breed axolotls,” Faure says. “Once you have wonderful animals like these, you get a kick out of producing offspring.”

The underwater world surrounding him is the perfect atmosphere for Faure to work in. “I read on the porch, with five aquariums next to me and classical music in the background”, he says. “Very pleasant, and it gives me the opportunity to keep an eye on the fish.” As an aquarist, you are first and foremost an observer, which is also part of Faure’s job as a professor of environmental law. “I regularly visit natural sites to study, for example, how they are managed. Other jurists might be overwhelmed when they hear about the pH levels of water, or its acidity or chemistry, but I’m not. That’s where my hobby comes in very handy.”

Michael Faure (1958) is professor of Comparative and International Environmental Law and academic director of the Institute for Transnational Legal Research (METRO) at Maastricht University. He is also academic director of the Ius Commune Research School and of the European Doctorate in Law and Economics (EDLE) programme. In addition, he is a member of the board of directors of the European Centre of Tort and Insurance Law (ECTIL). He has worked as an attorney for Van Goethem Law in Antwerp since 1982. Since 2008, he has been professor of Comparative Private Law and Economics at Erasmus University Rotterdam.

By: Jolien Linssen, photo's: Paul van der Veer