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End of the Aquarist Era

I am happy to report that we are now a fish-less household. As you may recall, about two years ago we were “gifted” with a betta fish. I never planned on owning a fish, but once one was put in my hand, I went out and bought a 2.5 gallon tank, rocks, and some aquarium decorations. A month or so later, the mercury dipped and I bought an aquarium heater.  Seven months after his arrival and after three months of a disfiguring illness, Phineas died.

Simon was distraught, so we cleaned the tank and brought home three cardinal tetras. As schooling fish, three was the minimum number. All was well for a year or so, until one of the three died. Shortly thereafter, and before we could put a replacement in the tank, a second one died on the evening of Kol Nidre. That left me with a tiny solitary schooling fish and a bigger dilemma.

From what I have read, tetras need to be in a school of 5 or more to thrive. A school that large requires a five- or ten-gallon tank. A tank that large requires more space than I have in my house.

So what to do? Bring in more fish I can’t take good care of? A cardinal tetra should live for more than a year or so. Wait for the last cardinal tetra to die? That would entail more suffering than I am comfortable with. Euthanize an otherwise healthy fish? I would feel terrible about killing a healthy fish out of convenience. There didn’t seem to be any good choices.

Then Caroline’s dad told me that he had four cardinal tetras in his ten-gallon aquarium and that we could re-home our fish there. Hallelujah! I get out of the aquarium business, which I did not enjoy and which is pretty time consuming. But more importantly, I do right by the fish.

The degree of my concern over a single, tiny fish might seem disproportionate or silly. I know that. But this is bigger than the fish; this is about living by one’s principles. For the last month or so, I’ve been violating a value I hold dear: Namely, that people should only have pets if they can take good care of them. My cats have always been given good food, loads of affection, room to play, cozy places to sleep, and regular veterinary care. Whereas with the fish, I feel like I defaulted on my obligation the second I brought home a too small tank.

It was a little bit of a tough sell to Simon, until I asked him if he’d want to keep Cambria if he were lonely, sick, and shut up in a tiny room all day. That hit home. So last night, I netted my stressed out cardinal tetra who has been swimming erratically for two weeks now, presumably from the stress of being alone. The netting stressed him even more, as did the trip in a plastic container to our friends’ house. Then he got netted again and placed into the much larger tank with four fish of his own kind.

At first, he swam erratically and shivered, and I worried this was too much stress piled on top of more stress and would kill him. By the time I left a few hours later, however, I could no longer tell which fish was mine and which fish were original to the tank. Simon is a little sad, but he’s also happy that his fish is happy.

As for me, I am hugely relieved to no longer feel guilt, shame, and concern every time I look at Simon’s dresser—site of the tank—and see a struggling, improperly cared for fish. It will be much better for all parties to visit little Cardie in his new home and put something better suited to the space, like a model of the solar system, on Simon’s dresser.

Swim happy little tetra. You are my last fish.

One Response to “End of the Aquarist Era”

  1. tlalbaugh says:

    I can so relate! I’ve had a nice 25 gallon fish tank for 20 years and am so done with it. Once I had a kid, the tank’s upkeep just became too annoying, so I decided that once the last fish died, that would be that. Well, it’s been more than three years since then, and one tiny little fish lives on. We didn’t even buy this fish; he got stuck in a net with another fish we bought so the pet store just gave him to us. He is positively decrepit and only has one eye and is fed only intermittently (though overfeeding is what kills fish the fastest; less is more where food and fish are concerned). And yet I keep cleaning the tank every six weeks or so because otherwise it looks beastly, and I am overcome by guilt every time I walk by it. We are moving in the spring, and the tank is not going with us. If he’s not dead by then, I will have to decide whether to off him (ugh; I’ve only done that once with a really sick fish and it was ridiculous how much I wept) or give in to Kira and get her the five gallon tank she’s been begging for in her bedroom (which we know I’d end up taking care of, sigh).

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