There are any number of animals I have fallen in love with and determined to bring home. I’ve adopted five cats — and with apologies to cat lovers round the world — they each lasted less than a week once I discovered how wonderful cats aren’t, at least when compared to my faithful dogs. Cats climbing up the laundry rack, their claws shredding clean clothing; cats clawing their way up silk curtains; and most criminal of all — cats harassing my endlessly adoring collies.
“No,” the collies informed me. “Just no.”
Other animals have similarly wormed their way into my heart, with heavy emphasis on cows. Not that I live on a farm, but there is something soul-stirring in the liquid depths of those brown eyes. Those calf eyes beg me to bring them home and let them munch the lawn.
Once again, sanity, driven by the resignation that the collies own the lawn, that the calf will evolve into a large cow with hooves to kick the dogs, has prevailed every time I’ve considered bringing home a baby calf.
But of all the creatures I have encountered, betta fish have failed to move me.
I’m not saying I don’t like fish in a tank. They’re beautiful to watch, their swimming graceful and seemingly effortless, gliding through a physical property which, when torrents are unleashed, wreaks havoc on anything in its path. I’ve marveled at fish, the way they can breathe underwater, their smooth silence, their aloof superiority. In that, I’ve always believed fish were even more aloof than cats.
Up til now.
Last September when my daughter Isabelle left, I adopted her fish. It took three weeks before I remembered it existed. When I did recall that she’d kept a blue betta in a bowl, my reaction was one of horror.
Three weeks without food in a half gallon of water that hadn’t been changed. Whether I like fish or not, I owed it to the poor creature to give it a decent flushing, at the least.
I drummed up the courage to go to Isabelle’s apartment to determine Charlie’s status. Although we hadn’t talked much recently about the pros and cons of this fish, I did remember the betta’s name. I’m not sure why she decided upon it — knowing Isabelle, it was probably a joke about tuna, ie; “Sorry, Charlie.”
As it was, I didn’t have much hope for Charlie being alive, so I figured it didn’t matter if I couldn’t recall his name.
Walking into her apartment, I tried to remember where he was. In Isabelle’s previous place, she’d kept several fish (spaced out between inevitable deaths) in a small tank on her desk that overlooked the street. It faced west, with lots of sunshine. We’d both discussed the beneficence of giving a fish an opportunity to look out the window and enjoy the light play on the leaves of the tree outside the window. Not that we were sure fish did this. Options are nice, though.
I walked into the apartment led by my nose. I was damned sure the fish was dead — after three weeks, the thing had to smell, right?
I discovered Charlie in his small plastic bowl on her dresser in the bedroom. He was floating, and it wasn’t sideways. Nearly motionless, the betta seemed tiny and deflated, hanging on for whatever purpose it found it worthwhile. I scooped up the little bowl and the container of betta pellets and set it gently on the passenger seat in my car. I could flush him at home.
The betta fish wasn’t dead. The thing had an immense will to live.
Charlie was fed and his water changed. He gazed listlessly at the brown pellets, but managed to float to the water’s surface. Opening his mouth, and with an intake of breath that seemed to encompass a sigh, he sucked in one or two of them.
Intrigued, I spent the next several hours reading everything I could find about betta fish. What they ate and when, the best size tank to keep them in. Morbidly, I read horror stories of fish deaths: bettas that had jumped out of bowls to land on the floor, only to be scraped off with a spatula hours later — nearly dried out, but still a fish. I read how bettas, bred as Siamese fighting fish, hated tank mates, hated a water current, and were susceptible to all manner of fish ailments. A betta might bite the fins or fight with any but the most docile fish in its tank, comments warned on fish sites.
And yet, as is most often true, there were exceptions. So I began to experiment.
The next day I bought Fishy (renamed in case I became too attached to my new, blue friend) a two-gallon tank with a number of artificial plants. After a week of hard, brown pellets, I bought him flakes, expanding the feeding program into dried shrimp to be crumbled enticingly across the water’s top.
Fishy re-inflated. He swam round and round the tank. Even more miraculous, he knew when it was feeding time. Swimming to the front of the tank, Fishy waggled his fins and tail (in opposite directions all at once), opening and shutting his mouth, begging for food.
He was no different than a dog, except he didn’t bark. And as an old lawyers’ proverb goes, “The fish got hooked because it opened its mouth.”
Except in this instance, I was the one who’d been hooked, fallen hook, line, and sinker, for this silent yet engaging blue creature.
Off to the fish store I went. I’d read that Fishy really wanted to eat minuscule blood worms. Every morning. Scrumptious.
He sucked them down like spaghetti, chasing a cascade of worms to the bottom of the tank, scavenging among the rocks for a half hour each morning to make sure he hadn’t missed one.
The collies were wary. They sensed I was cheating on them, feeding Fishy before them each morning. To their minds, it was beyond nervy.
Ignoring them, I bought a bigger tank and added tank mates. Along the way, Fishy’s name changed once more. And our conversations saw a change in tone.
Fishy: I get that you bought three Otocinclus to clean up the mess I’ve made (algae). But man are they skittish (he whined while going nose-to-nose with the largest Oto.)
Me: Back off the Oto’s, you Big Blue Terror.
BBTerror: Just curious. Nothing more. But these Panda Corys, geez. Darting, scampering. No dignity whatsoever.
Me: Play nice. You looked bored in there. You can only sleep so much.
The other morning, the Panda Cory’s discovered the fish feast of blood worms and I watched in trepidation. Would this be the time when the Blue Terror gave them the thrashing he believed they deserved?
Nearly tripping over each other to find food, they fed alongside Big Blue. Swimming beneath and through Blue’s flowing fins, they swam circles around him. He remained nonplussed.
I sense he is looking at me with amusement at their antics. “These kids,” he says. “You can’t get any respect.”
Off he swims, in search of food, in search of a quiet spot near the top of the tank amongst the artificial greenery. Until he decides it’s time to mingle again.