Angel fish was in his accustomed place where he waits every morning, knowing that as soon as I have opened the doors for the dog, he will be fed. Ani bounds up onto the sofa and sticks her head over tank as soon as I open it to feed them. She has developed an acquisitive interest in the various fish foods. Angel fish doesn’t care, he comes up to the surface and will take his breakfast from your fingers, even with the small dog so close.
Except, he wouldn’t be having breakfast. You could see that straight away. It is an odd thing, even before you have a chance to really look, you just know when a fellow creature has died….. the lights have gone out.
I switched on the aquarium lamps, hoping I was wrong… he had seemed fine the night before, no signs at all of any problems and he was only a few years old, but sadly he was gone. Ani watched quietly as I netted the lifeless body and placed him in a suitable coffin, laying her head on her paws as if she knew. In the few short hours since bedtime, his scales had dulled, his colours dimmed and the graceful expression of life had left him.
These things happen, especially with creatures we have bred and interbred solely for their appearance. As their keepers, we have a responsibility to learn their needs and provide for them, but sometimes even that is not enough.
My eyes flicked back to the aquarium. The big pleco was stuck to the glass round the corner of the tank, hiding amongst the plants he has chosen to call home. Not that he can hide very well when he deploys that huge sailfin… but he thinks he can and that makes him feel safe. His plants are getting a little sparse… Mad Fish and co are experts at deforestation, even though I amuse my son, their previous keeper, by supplementing their fish food with blanched vegetables every day. They just eat those, anything else they can find… then have the plants for dessert anyway.
I’m getting a little concerned about Mad Fish. He’s slowing down…he is a very old fish for his species but I am glad he has a shoal around him at last. They are always active, always darting around at speed… I can understand why he rests a lot these days. I still feel a little sadness for the long lonely time when he must have felt like a fish out of water on his own. Knowing little of tropical fish when I adopted the aquarium, I wouldn’t have questioned his odd behaviour had my son not mentioned that he thought he was missing his departed mate. We didn’t even know what he was, but a bit of research was an eye opener. So now he has a shoal and is no longer Mad Fish, but Grandfather Fish.
The little pleco was out and about too. He hides most of the time, which is a pity as he is beautiful. I didn’t know what he was either, apart from being a plectostomus. Now I do… after hours trawling fish sites, I found him… he’s a dwarf clown plec and that means I need to buy some bogwood. I had no idea that some fish need the stuff to help them digest their food, but they do.
I’ve even learned how the fish can tell me when something is wrong. Just by watching their behaviour you can tell if something has disturbed them. The signals and body language are complex but not incomprehensible. Some are easy to understand… when they all swim up to the surface more than usual, or like the ‘tank canaries’, the little rummy-nosed tetras, whose brilliant red markings fade the moment the water quality changes. Even a water change is enough and I wait for their colours to glow to let me know the tank is safe.
The things I have learned since having the fish! Water parameters and temperatures, bacteria and how important it is to have plenty rather than keeping the tank too clean. Breeding habits, snail management, the growing of aquatic plants and a whole host of things about fish health.
I knew a bit about that from looking after Nick’s pond… you learn the specific needs of the creatures you care for, but a pond is an alien realm… no matter how clear the water, we really see only the surface and the shadowy world beneath is a different dimension. With a tank, you see the fish clearly, face to face, in a way that allows a completely different level of observation and a more intimate relationship.
As I watched Ani’s joy as she bounced through the long grass, getting drenched with the early morning dew, I was thinking about how much we can learn by just looking and paying attention. The difference between the pond and the tank is quite amazing. With the pond, I know the fish and their behaviour, but only seen from afar… apart from when they choose to come to the surface and interact with me. With the tank, there is an intimacy that allows me to see into their world. I could just look at the pretty fishes, or I can choose to see individuals, each with their own habits and character and learn to know them. Either way, as you learn to care for them, you start to care about them as individuals.
It is pretty much the same with people too. There are some, like the fish in the pond, whose lives keep them from intimacy and the only people who ever really know them are those for whom they will surface for a while, meeting them halfway. With most people, though, it is more like living with an aquarium except guard against too much intimacy. Even though we share a world, we only look, rather than take the time to see them. We may pass a hundred faces or more in a single day and never see more than that… yet every person is unique and has a character all their own, a story, a gift… something that makes them stand out from the rest of humanity as themselves.
Seeing instead of looking, learning each other’s needs and learning to look after each other so that we learn to care about each other. Maybe it is as simple as keeping fish.