About five years ago, my husband suggested we join the estimated 10 million other American households that maintain at least one aquarium full of fish. I agreed mostly because it seemed easier than getting a dog, but also because I had one of those small 3 gallon hexagonal tanks in my bedroom as a kid and it was kind of cool. Also, we had recently visited a friend who had a hundred and something gallon tank built into a dividing wall in his basement and I have to say, it was exceptionally cool. So I thought a 10-20 gallon aquarium could be a nice addition to our home.
What I failed to anticipate was that my husband would call our fish-obsessed friend for advice. What he was told was “go big or don’t bother.” Oh, I suspect he also got a few pointers on how to convince your wife you need a bigger aquarium than you originally discussed. I don’t even know how he pulled it off (except that I do distinctly remember that he agreed to clean the thing), but a few hours later we were driving home with a 65 gallon aquarium strapped into the back of the minivan.
Maybe a week after that we had a fully functioning home aquarium, about half a dozen small tropical freshwater starter fish (conventional wisdom suggests you need a gallon for each inch of fish so we had some room to grow), and absolutely no idea what we were doing.
Really, though, how hard could it be? People have been keeping live fish for thousands of years, starting with the Sumerians around 2500 BC. These first fish were food rather than pets, maintained in shallow sea-side pools. In Ancient China, captive carp breeding for food was well-established by at least 475 BC. Over the years, this led to the keeping of goldfish in outdoor ponds purely for aesthetic pleasure, a practice that was well established in China by the time of the Song Dynasty (960-1279). From China, the art of keeping and breeding goldfish spread to Japan and eventually to Europe by the late 17th century.
But it’s the relationship that the Romans had to their fish that I find most interesting. Wealthy Romans were also in the habit of maintaining fish ponds sometimes as a food source, but more often as a show of wealth. They also tended to have a few favorite fish that they treated more like pets. And we’re not talking about fluttery goldfish, bred for optimum beauty. Mostly, the Romans kept things like lampreys and eels, which looked like, well, lampreys and eels.
To compensate for the lack of natural beauty, the owners would decorate their favored fish with jewelry piercings and beaded necklaces (but only if they had offended the fish somehow and needed to apologize). One story even goes that Lucius Licinius Crassus (140-91 BC), a respected orator and Roman censor, went into deep mourning upon the death of his favorite fish (Again, this is an eel. Wearing earrings.).
Allegedly the distraught fish breeder built a tomb for his beloved pet. When taunted publicly by fellow censor Gnaeus Demetius Ahenobarbus, Licinus defended his behavior by accusing Demetius of being so emotionally barren that he had buried three wives without shedding a single tear. It seems that Demetius also did not challenge the truth of his colleague’s statement, which, I suppose, does make him creepier than the overly attached fish whisperer. This round goes to Licinus in my book.
We’ve had our share of fish death in our tank over the years. Of course, it’s going to happen when you’re dealing with animals that don’t have a particularly long life span anyway and that are really sensitive to their environment which is controlled entirely by an incompetent person.
I will say this, though, I have come a long way these last five years (thank goodness for the Internet). For someone whose previous aquarium experience included accidentally cooking a black tetra by turning up the heater too high and whose husband has never once cleaned the 65 gallon fish tank, I think I’ve done pretty well. I have certainly learned a few things:
- A little algae isn’t going to hurt and it is possible to clean an aquarium too much, unless, for some reason, you want to grow blue/green death bacteria.
- Big fish will eat little fish, no matter how community-oriented the store’s labels may claim them to be.
- Fish eat about half as much as you think they do and they poop at last twice as much as you think should be possible.
- Dirty fish aquarium water is not particularly harmful to toddlers if ingested in the 1.5 seconds while mom’s back is turned.
- Snails are gross and probably inevitable.
- Kids don’t view fish as actual pets for very long and will eventually beg you for a guinea pig.
I will also grudgingly admit that our new house feels much more like home now that the aquarium has been back up and running for almost a week. After two cross-country moves, countless hours of maintenance, A LOT of failure, and some successes, too, I think I have finally come to appreciate our fishy monstrosity. And I hope that our four new tiny little tester fish enjoy their new home as much as I do. I have taken a lot of care in preparing it for them and for their fishy friends yet to come.
It’s been three days and I am delighted to report that none of them has died yet. If they do, I’ll probably mourn them. But I am not buying them jewelry.