Short life in a goldfish bowl

Kevin Cowherd

April 10, 1991|By Kevin Cowherd

THERE IS probably something good to be said about the idea of fish as pets, although whatever it is escapes me at the moment.

Certainly, fish are neither as playful and affectionate as dogs, nor do they possess the titillating menace of cats, who will often lunge at a person's thorax or scratch out his eyes simply out of boredom.

Fish are also not exactly the hardiest creatures around. Quite frankly, the ones I have known as pets have all tended to . . . well, I guess there's no other way to put this . . . die.

You have no idea how upsetting it is to retire for the evening after tossing a cheerful wave in the direction of the aquarium, where your fish are swimming peacefully -- only to come downstairs the next morning and find them floating belly-up next to the fake coral which sits atop the fake miniature sunken ship.

There is not much you can do in this case except scoop them out of the water and -- off a quick (though heartfelt) prayer before chucking them into a Baggy and hustling them out to the garbage can.

Boy, you don't think that gets to you? I myself have been through a half-dozen of these gut-wrenching scenes. That's why I say it takes extraordinary emotional stability to purchase a pet that could keel over at any moment, even as you walk out the door of Al's World of Tropical Fish with your new little friend. Make sure you keep the receipt, is all I'm saying.

(Note: With an essay of this sort, there is every reason to expect some kind of backlash from the powerful pet store lobby, whose tentacles (to mix a metaphor) extend to every mom and pop fish, reptile and small animal dealer in the country.

(I can see these lobbyists now, their necks reddening and their jaws tightening over what they no doubt consider another reckless smear job on pet fish.

(Listen, I don't want any trouble from you people and your lawyers. So let's get one thing straight: I'm NOT picking on fish. It's just that I like my fish out of a Mrs. Paul's package with cocktail sauce and lemon on the side.

(I'm sorry. That was cruel.)

But if we can leave all this depressing talk of possible litigation behind, do you know what can kill a fish in an aquarium?

Everything can kill a fish in an aquarium. Too much food. Not enough food. Water that's too murky. Water that's too clean. Too much oxygen. Not enough oxygen.

Good God! If you own a pet fish, how do you live with that kind of pressure day after day after day?!

My hands would be trembling from the moment I got up to the moment I went to sleep. All day long I'd be haunted by a single thought: "The fish . . . please don't let them croak today! Oh please, oh, please!"

Actually, I do know what that kind of stress is like, having been through an eerily similar experience two years ago.

This was back when my kids won a couple of goldfish at the state fair. I wasn't too thrilled with the prize, but you know how it is at a state fair. I was just happy they didn't win a team of oxen.

Anyway, in a burst of creative genius, the kids named the goldfish Goldie and Silvie because -- stay with me here -- one fish was gold-colored and the other had flecks of silver on its side.

"These fish don't have a prayer," I whispered to my wife when the kids showed us their new pets. "If they're still alive at sunset, it's a major biological upset."

Well, I was wrong. Weeks and weeks went by and these stupid fish just kept right on living. Even when the kids forgot to feed them or clean the water or whatever, these fish didn't bat an eyelash.

Boy, were they tough! I never saw anything like it. These fish could have swum in the wake of the Exxon Valdez and not even gagged, let alone die.

Then one morning the kids woke me up with a sobering bulletin: Goldie and Silvie were no longer swimming merrily in the aquarium.

Sure enough, after stumbling downstairs, I saw the kids were right. Goldie and Silvie were no longer swimming. And the reason they were no longer swimming is because they were no longer alive. Instead, the two scrappiest goldfish in the world -- goldfish that might as well have carried crowbars and bicycle chains, they were so tough -- were floating belly-up next to the fake mermaid.

And if it happened to them, it could happen to any other little fish that . . .

Obviously, I still have a few feelings to work out.

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