Whenever my sons visit a pet store, they make a bee line for the aquariums and declare their affection for fish. They expect me to believe without a hint of introspection that the non-electronic, unarmed guppy who has no potential for upgrades or new skins would hold their attention for more than five seconds. Standing shoulder to shoulder with other children under a similar spell, they gaze at the mindless path the shiny fish swims between fake vegetation and a plastic scuba diver who, judging by the amount and intensity of the bubbles he belches, is frozen in a moment of grave distress.
Then, they begin the case for fish as a low maintenance, inexpensive, and odorless addition to any household. But we have been down this road before. I remind them fish are none of those things. They are a high maintenance wet box of stink that makes dollars disappear as fast as food pellets. And to add insult to injury, fish offer the same emotional relationship as a lava lamp.
Make no mistake, an aquarium is a delicate ecosystem. Ammonia, nitrites, nitrates, PH, temperature, salinity all these factors are essential for the survival of the little swimmer who arrives unceremoniously in a see through plastic bag that could do double duty as a lunch sack for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Before we know it, we will be dipping test strips in that water every day and running back to the store to buy $8.00 drops to remedy the situation for the .99 guppy.
And here’s another oddity, we eat fish. Pets in general don’t make the menu- except fish. So when a fish dies are we throwing away good food or good money?
In fact, death is the bulk of the pet fish experience. Aquariums are in a perpetual cycle of death. We have become painfully aware of the warning signs. A troubled fish starts swimming vertically as if revving up to spring out of the tank in some aquatic harikari then loses its nerve at the last second and swims back to the bottom. Next, its body bends, it swims on its side, and starts to look like a self-propelled elbow macaroni.
Finally the poor creature gives up the ghost, but our work will not done. Someone must scoop out the remains or witness Swimmy’s friends cannibalize his dead corpse and then act like nothing has changed.
No, fish are not easy. Like all pets, they teach your children a lesson. Life is not easy. It takes care, devotion, and a lot of dedication to make it work right.