Wednesday, August 15, 2012

let's talk about pet fish.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been fascinated by sea life. From sea anemones to octopi, I can’t get enough of it. Give me a day at the aquarium, and I’ll be a happy camper – especially if said aquarium has a touch tank filled with stingrays.
Giant crabs are also acceptable.
Ever since I can remember, I have been captivated by even the lowliest of aquatic life. There was a small creek near my childhood home, and I would spend summers searching for a crayfish to keep as a pet. When my attempts at crayfish catching failed – as they invariably did – I would move onto easier prey: minnows. I had one of those tiny green fishtank nets, and I’d go minnow-catching. I’d return home with an ice cream bucket full of minnows, excitedly naming each and every one of them. I always received the same reaction from my mother: “That’s nice, but you can’t bring them in the house. Better put them back in the creek.” So I’d bid farewell to my pets, sigh deeply, and return them to the creek. Of course, I came back the next day to check on them, and they seemed to be happy.

I got the same reaction to all the turtles, toads, frogs, and salamanders I would catch and try to domesticate. I would put them in my little red Radio Flyer and wheel them home, so excited for the newest household addition. My parents were ready: “What are you going to feed them.” Uhh… “What if they’re lonely for their families?” Uhh… “Do you think they want to be kept here in an ice cream bucket when they could be by a pond and have all the space they need?” My parents made good points, and they employed the always-successful guilt assault. I dutifully freed these creatures, as well.

As I got a little older, my parents thought that I was mature enough to handle a pet of my very own: a goldfish. Believe it or not, they even thought I was mature enough for TWO goldfish! I must’ve been four or five at the time, because my only responsibility was to feed them – and even then, someone was nearby to make sure I didn’t dump the entire container of fish food in their little bowl.

Goldfish are not terribly sturdy creatures, and sure enough, one of my fish died shortly after we brought it home. Mom and Dad felt like I was perhaps a bit too young for the life and death talk, so they relied on me being really gullible.

First thing every morning, I would dash down the stairs and say good morning to my two goldfish. Imagine my surprise on that particular morning when there was only one fish looking back at me. Mom had already gone to work, so, bewildered, I looked to Dad for the answers. “Well, Calla,” Dad said. “The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were coming to visit your mom’s office today. Your fish really wanted to go with her to meet them, so your mom took your fish to work.” A perfectly reasonable explanation, right? I was absolutely sold on Dad’s Ninja Turtle story, no questions asked. I was a little peeved that Mom hadn’t taken ME to meet the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but I couldn’t begrudge my goldfish the opportunity to meet some reptilian celebrities.
Even with weapons, they look so friendly!
Mom returned home that evening with an identical bright orange fish in a plastic baggie. “Your fish had such a good time at my office today,” she said, gently dropping the replacement fish in the bowl. “He LOVED meeting the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” (I had decreed that all of my fishes were boys.) I was glad my fish had a good day out in the working world, but I made Mom promise to take me – not the fish, no matter how hard they begged – with her to meet them should the Ninja Turtles ever return. She promised.

It wasn’t too long after this magical fish disappearing act that my uncle Steve came to visit us. I don’t remember why – maybe we were gone, or maybe Steve was looking for something to do – but Steve ended up cleaning the fish bowl. Steve, who was not a fish owner, did a good job… except for one thing. He put hot water in the bowl. It wasn’t long before my poor goldfish suffered little fishy system failure, and they went belly up. Steve felt terrible. He offered to get new fish for me, but Mom and Dad were beginning to think that these fish were more trouble than they were worth. I don’t remember how they broke the news to me, but I probably wasn’t too devastated: after all, I had a creekful of minnows just down the road.

Some years later, I declared that I wanted to give this goldfish thing another try. I had gotten some money for my birthday, and I was going to use it to set up a little goldfish paradise. I bought a little tank with a green lid, colorful pebbles, and the fanciest fish food WalMart had. Then came the fish: one silver, one gold. I don’t remember what I named them, but I’m sure it was something bizarre. For four days, I lovingly cared for my fish: I fed them on time, and I cleaned their tank. On the fifth day, much like with my first fish, I came downstairs to greet my pets. I found them floating on the surface, bellies in the air.

I was confused: what had I done wrong? I had fed them and loved them. I consulted the only other person I knew who had a fish: my friend Allison. She informed me that it wasn’t me, it was them: WalMart fish at that time had notoriously short life spans. Allison’s fish had come from the local aquarium and hobby store (which is a story for another time), and her fish was thriving.

I buried my fish in our tulip garden (I guess their greater purpose was to be fertilizer) and more or less gave up on fish. That is, until a fish named Willie came along.
(not actually Willie: just a stand-in.)
When I was thirteen, my family and I moved into a new house. As a house-warming gift, my aunt Barb presented us with a red and blue beta fish. He came with a name: Wilfred, which we shortened to Willie. Willie lived in a bowl that was also home to a plant: the plant sat elevated in a little plastic cup, and its roots stretched into the bowl where Willie swam.
It looked a lot like this, but without the
decorative bamboo mat and seashells.
Apparently, Willie would eat the algae that grew on the roots, and life would be good for him. We fed him beta food a couple of times a week, and both Willie and the plant seemed to flourish.

Willie the beta lived to the ripe old age of three. When he passed away, Mom flushed him to his watery grave with a simple eulogy: “Goodbye, Willie. You look really gross.” I warned her that I might reuse that comment for her eulogy, but she didn’t seem to mind.

It’s been almost ten years since Willie the beta died, and he was the last pet fish to grace our household. I keep saying that I should get another fish, but I never do. Why? I remembered how fish are a great idea, but only in theory: if I’m going to invest in a pet, it’s going to be something with four legs and a tail, and it’s going to come from the Humane Society. The fish swimming around in pet store tanks don’t need my love nearly as much as the cats and dogs from the Humane Society do. Besides, it’s a lot more satisfying to give an awesome name to a dog or a cat than a fish: I’ve got a whole list of them. As soon as I move to a place that will allow pets, I’ll be lined up to adopt a pet. Goldfish need not apply.


  1. Oh, man, was the fish in question Spartacus? I only vaguely remember this consultation. Spartacus was the BEST FISH EVER.

    1. I didn't remember the fish's name, but it HAD to be Spartacus. Didn't he live forever?!