Why you shouldn’t get a goldfish

28 Aug

We stand, all three of us, my mom, sister and I in front of the fish at PetsMart. We came to get a goldfish, a shiny orange one Victoria will put in her two-gallon tank, on her dresser in her room. Her last one died. She walked in one day, and there it was, belly up, floating at the top. She ran downstairs, hysterical, nearly crying: “Mom, my fish died!” The day before, it was perfectly healthy, cheerfully swimming through his water. Turns out it died from heat, or so we think. The tank lamp should be turned off periodically, to cool the water. Victoria didn’t know. It was bright sunshine for the fish all day, and all night, long. The light killed it.

The goldfish we’re looking at now look healthy enough. Victoria’s already got one picked out, including its name: “Squirt.” (Because it’s tinier than the rest, but it’s pretty, a goldeny color orange.) She follows it with her finger along the tank, as it twirls through the other, bigger fish. Some have bulgy eyes and bubbly heads, and I think the same thing I always think when I see these fish: “Why does anyone buy those?” They are—I think—ugly. If I had to look at something in my house every day, I would not choose them. The marker drawings on the tank read “$2.99” A bargain. A steal. For that price, she could get—a lot of Squirts.

“Can I help you guys with something?” says a PetsMart employee in the fish department, with a dark green polo emblazoned with the company logo, complete with khaki pants and a fish net in his right hand, still dripping.

“We’re looking for a goldfish,” my mom tells him, smiling in the direction of the tank Squirt’s swimming around in.

“What size tank do you have?” he asks, stepping down from the ladder just moments ago he was at the top of.

“It’s a two gallon tank; we just want one fish for it.”

Fish man shakes his head. He makes a “tsk tsk” noise. He looks at us like we’re like we’re very small, tiny children he needs to teach a lesson to—on how not to kill your fish. I’m worried. I wonder if he’s one of those people who believe eating salmon for dinner is the same as murder.

“A goldfish needs a 10 gallon tank,” he says. “They grow—big—(He makes a motion with his hand, indicating just how monstrous they can become.) and they need one gallon per inch of fish. Two gallons wouldn’t be nearly enough. Did you keep one in that before?”

My little sister looks toward the ground, at the wall, anywhere but him.

“I see.”  His eyes narrow for a moment, but then he perks back up. “Well, I can tell you that one—just one—would do well in a 10 gallon tank, and they’re just over here in this aisle.”

We follow him to where the big tanks are, filling three shelves with empty glass and black borders. My mom looks at the price tag and gulps. It’s not cheap, like Squirt is.

“Do they really need 10 gallons?” I ask, eyeing them warily. Suddenly it seems if little tiny Squirt were in this tank it’d be an ocean to him, somewhere he could get lost. Much better to keep him in a two-gallon tank, I think, where he’d know his way around.

He looks exasperated now, like trying to teach children for the zillionth time their ABC’s. “Yes, they absolutely need 10 gallons, even the goldfish that look small now. Plus, they’re dirty fish. Messy, the messiest of any fish here.” He makes an expansive gesture toward the wall of bright fish tanks. “They release a ton of ammonia into the water. So if you don’t change the water often, it’s lethal to them.”

I’m not sure exactly what ammonia is—and I don’t think my mom or sister do either—but apparently fish produce it, and too much is bad for them. I can see we three all thinking the same thoughts: “So if goldfish grow to monstrous proportions, are super messy and produce gross amounts of lethal ammonia requiring near constant water change, why, again, are we getting one?” Squirt now seems far less attractive than he was just a short time ago.

“Tropical fish are a good choice,” fish man says, uncannily reading out thoughts, “but they do require more work. You’ll need a heater and salt for the water, a thermometer, an extra good filter, a sucker to suck the grime from the gravel…”

I stop listening at the 15th item he lists. As he continues talking, telling us all the items necessary to properly maintaining a healthy tropical fish tank, I’m back to the goldfish. I picture all the one gallon goldfish bowls I’ve owned since I was little. All the half gallon bowls filled with fish at carnivals. All the bowls I’ve seen in people’s homes. They are everywhere. If they’re so terrible—so deadly—then why, why, does everywhere sell them and everyone have them?

So I interrupt the now detailed description of proper filtration. “How come so many people then have the one or two gallon goldfish tanks—?”

“Let me ask you a question,” he says, setting down his net, because I suppose he’s about to get real serious now. “How many people do you know that have five-year-old goldfish? Hm? How many people do you know who have, say, four-year-old goldfish? Hm?”

We shake out heads no, and no, we do not in fact know anyone with old, ancient goldfish. Most of the people we know just have their goldfish death stories, like our own.

“I didn’t think so. And you know why? Because they die. Every last one. It may be in two weeks, in two months—maybe they’ll hold out for a year or two—but they always end up dying. The tank is too small. They never live to see three inches.”

We left the store not with a goldfish, not with tropical fish and not with a 10-gallon tank. All the way home my sister cradled in her lap, making sure it didn’t splash, a deep blue Beta fish with flecks of fiery red. She named it Polynesia, after the bird in the Dr. Doolittle stories. It’s happy now in her small tank because, apparently, Beta trap oxygen in their bodies, so they don’t need as much of it.

Before we left, I turned back to look one more time at the wall of florescent fish tanks, and I saw fish man ask a young couple if they needed help. I wished I could tell them to kindly say “No,” so they could stay blissfully ignorant of the intricacies of owning a fish. Once you know, you can never go back to a one gallon. Or, even to a goldfish.

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One Response to “Why you shouldn’t get a goldfish”

  1. Maddy February 19, 2013 at 12:11 pm #

    Fish are definitely not beginner pets. You have to keep up an environment totally different from the one you live in. How many times do you have to worry about your cat not getting enough oxygen or getting to cold in the house? Because when your air quality goes down, you notice it as much as the house pet. When the tank quality goes down, however, you can’t really notice unless you test the water. I think a beta is the only acceptable aquarium pet for beginner fish lovers. But for someone who is looking for an easy pet, there’s probably nothing better than a cat or dog.

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