Sunday, February 12, 2012

Goldfish and Other Abominations

We have goldfish.  It’s a long story.  It starts with a turtle, which is an even longer story, involving a dear friend of mine who, miraculously, is still a dear friend even after he gave my daughter a Red-Eared Slider for her birthday. 
A Red-Eared Slider is just what every parent wants for their child: a high-maintenance, emotionally unavailable pet that will outlive them.
After a few months of turtle ownership, I decided he needed a little enrichment.  A second turtle was out of the question, because it turns out you need at least two females for every one male, plus 10 gallons of tank space for every inch of shell length.  The turtle book recommended aquatic plants, but the he ate them faster than they could grow.  I consulted the book again.  Recommendation?  “Fast-swimming fish.”  Solution: “Feeder fish.”  At $.19/each, they were way cheaper than the aquatic plants.  And, as it turns out, less edible.  The turtle had no idea what to make of feeder fish, but dinner never occurred to him.  (Exhibit A in the case against releasing pet turtles into the wild.)  Which was a very good thing, since—despite my pre-fish introduction briefing to the children (“You do understand why they’re called ‘feeder fish,’ right?”), my younger daughter had formed an emotional bond with them before we even let them out of their pet store baggies.
The goldfish adapted so well to their new environment, we decided to add a few more.  But the feeder fish at the pet store were sick (you know it’s bad when the pet store employee says, quietly, “Don’t buy those”) so we opted for four of the more expensive but cute fantailed goldfish.
“Watch out,” the pet-store employee told me.  “Even though your turtle hasn’t eaten the feeder fish, he might go after these.  They’re a lot slower.”
“Oh, I’m not worried,” I said.  “He has no idea what to do with a live fish.”
Unfortunately, within about three seconds of seeing the plump little fantails in all of their wiggly glory, he figured it out.  He ate one immediately, and managed to eat half of another before I could life-flight them out. 
Even more unfortunately, the one he ate en toto was also my younger daughter’s favorite.  She had named her “Penny,” after her lustrous copper color, and tearfully eulogized her: “She just...was really calm, but still had an adventurous spirit.”  There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
The surviving 2.5 mal-adapted fantails went to live in a special prey refugee tank in the older daughter’s room.  They were given names: orange Embers, the survivor fish Lucky, and poor little half-eaten Stumpy, who staged a miraculous recovery over the next few weeks.  (Why yes, goldfish can regenerate their tails!  Ask me how I know.)  
The feeder fish, meanwhile, stayed in the turtle tank, where they positively thrived—eating, darting about, avoiding becoming prey, and growing at a rather arresting rate.  At just over four inches, the largest one is now nearly as big as the turtle. 
Then they began acting weird.  Three of them started chasing the fourth one around the tank.  I figured the fourth one had some sort of piscine malady invisible to me but apparent to the others, who had decided it was time to resort to cannibalism.  I netted the odd one and put it into a holding tank (read: goldfish bowl) for a few days’ of observation.  It looked fine, except for being preposterously cramped in the bowl.  I re-introduced it when I changed the water in the turtle tank, figuring goldfish would be easily fooled.  But within seconds, the other three were going for blood.
Like I really need any more drama in my house.
I netted it back out, and, since the observation tank was really just a goldfish bowl, which is not in any way suitable for actually housing a goldfish, I did the only thing that made sense:  I transferred it via the goldfish witness protection program into my older daughter’s tank.  She was (predictably) annoyed. 
“My tank is too small!  And that one doesn’t fit in with mine!”
She was right, but I really had no other option, short of taking the fish down to the local Vietnamese restaurant to see if they wanted them.
For their fish tank!  Geez, what did you think I meant?
A few weeks later, it occurred to me maybe I could re-re-introduce the oddball goldfish into the big tank. 
A few minutes after that, the other goldfish set upon it with an absolutely singular focus.  This time I watched more closely.  It was a singular focus that seemed, vaguely, maybe a little familiar.   Uh-oh.  A quick trip to Google confirmed my fears:
“When spawning, the males chase the females for sometimes hours at a time, creating quite a splash here and there, and the chase goes on until the female tires.”
Sonofabitch.  I kept reading.
“The male chases and then pushes around on the female… This is a common method used by the pros to determine the sex of the goldfish.  This event is often mistaken for aggressive behavior by inexperienced fish keepers.”
Or, by, say, women.  The website went on:
“Several males may participate as a group activity during spawning…If your gender scale is out of balance, a female might be injured from having too many males to deal with.”
Browsing around a few more forums gave me another pro-tip for sexing goldfish: if the fish appears to have grains of salt on its gill plates, it is a breeding male.  I peered back in the tank.  Salt grains? Check, check, and check.
Three of our four goldfish are breeding males?  What are the freaking odds?
“Assuming all males will eventually reach breeding size, one in five,” said my engineer husband.
Nevertheless, the websites seemed to encourage me to leave the female in the tank, assuring me that what looked like aggression was really just foreplay.  I suspected the website of authors of having Mommy Issues, but decided to give it a whirl.  I kept an eye on the goldfish, and the males relentlessly pursued the female.  For hours.  All around the tank.  All around the turtle.  I tried distracting them with food.  I tried turning off the heater, as warmer water encourages spawning.  I thought, briefly, about dumping some ice in the tank, but realized it would just piss off the poor celibate-by-circumstance turtle.  I turned off the light, as goldfish are diurnal.   
Eventually, the specter of goldfish gang rape became too much for me.  I netted the female and put her back in the small tank with her portly relations.  That tank may be crowded, but at least she could live in relative peace.  The second—and I mean the second—the female was out of the tank, the males went back to acting like normal goldfish, gliding along placidly, nibbling at the food they suddenly realized was drifting around them, avoiding the turtle, and presumably wondering what the hell had happened during their fugue state that had left them exhausted and missing a few scales.
As a function of my mental constitution, I see metaphors everywhere.  But I have two daughters.  I really need to avoid over-thinking this one.  Next step: buy a larger refugee tank.  And whatever combination of time machine, pheromone cloaking spray, armaments, or amnesiacs I am going to need in order to survive the next ten years.
File under "Lessons learned the hard way."


  1. It took me a while to figure out what was going on too. :) This is a lot of drama for goldfish!

    1. Hey, good to "see" you again! :-) I know...whoever thinks goldfish are low-maintenance is out to lunch.

  2. Oh gosh, this was hilarious! The wonders of biology...

  3. That was hysterical. "She had an adventurous spirit" just cracked me up XD Goldfish are always more than you bargained for, right? ;)

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