A life on the scales

My son has a sick fish in his pond over which we are both worrying. The trouble with pond fish is that they have many places to hide if they are unwell, and you only usually see them from above, so unless there is an obvious and visible problem, they can quickly deteriorate.

There is not a great deal left for us to do, as we know that by the time a fish reaches this stage, the end is almost inevitable. If there were a fish vet locally, and if the sensitive golden orfe would survive the trip, and if there were any reasonable hope… a lot of ‘ifs’ for a fish, but he has been with us a number of years and, along with the forty others with whom he shares the pond, he is part of the family. So we do what we can, making sure the water quality is good and aeration plentiful, that he is not baking when the sun comes out, and, odd as it may sound, we both sit with him, offering any comfort our presence and empathy might bring. Meanwhile, the whole euthanasia debate runs through my mind, getting nowhere as it vies for supremacy with hope.

If the fish were a dog or a cat and in pain, we would have no such problem. The vet would treat the problem until and unless there was nothing more to do…and then he would advise us about what to do next. An animal who was comfortable would be brought home to end its days in peace, but if it were suffering, the vet would make that clear and do what was best for the creature. And that’s where the sticking point comes with a fish… there are no ‘gentle’ methods of euthanising a fish when you have to do it yourself. In desperation, I did all the research for an earlier sick fish who thankfully passed on before it really began to suffer. It all boils down to one factor, whichever method you use (and there are some barbaric ones out there on the internet…) you have to kill it, swiftly and surely… and I honestly don’t think I could. Not when I know the creature so well. And that is without the moral, ethical and spiritual debate about whether or when it is right to make that decision for another life.

aquarium

I have an aquarium rather than a pond, and am facing a similar dilemma. The difference here is that I have a window on their world and know each of the fish intimately. I can see the slightest change in behaviour or appearance. I know, for example, that the two little black phantoms only have torn fins because they are males competing for breeding territory.  It will stop in a day or two and they will settle into tolerance of each other, their fins will heal… until they decide to have another battle.

Oddly enough, I too have a sick fish. I noticed straight away when he began to ail. It was nothing much…a slight variation in colour, the way he kept looking at me through the glass, something not quite right about his demeanour. I took steps immediately, checking the water parameters, cleaning the filter, doing a partial water change. I starved them for a day then fed them shelled peas to see if it would help (it often does). I even medicated the tank. The weekly water changes were increased… anything to maintain the best possible environment…but to no avail. The little gourami started to swell and within a day or two it was evident he had dropsy.

Out came the Epsom Salts, out came the fish to be bathed in salt solution twice a day. After the first time, he didn’t seem to mind, but just sat in the container looking up at me as I watched over him. But it didn’t help any either. He grew paler, swelled more, and finally his scaled took on the dreaded pinecone pattern of terminal dropsy. There is nothing more that I can do except wait…but how do you offer comfort to a fish?

His mate seems to know what is happening though and has taken that role upon herself. At first it was a tentative touching with her feelers… then she began to follow him around, touching and grooming him. Finally, as I watched with tears streaming, the sick fish found a sheltered spot in a plant and she joined him, her front fins and feelers seeming to hold him, her face pressed close to his.

two gourami fish

As the other fish come close to check on their companion, she guards him. She has gently pushed him deeper into the plant with her feelers when they have come too close and warned away others more curious. It is incredibly moving to watch. I can’t bear to separate them and move him to a hospital tank.

It is all too easy to project human emotion onto the creatures in our care, perhaps we cannot help but do so when it is the only lens we have through which to view the world. Fish seem alien in every way… they live in a world we can only observe through glass or water, they have no facial expressions with which to communicate and their body language is not easy to read. Except that, when you live with them by your side each day, you learn to read each subtle sign and expression. The way they swim and move their fins, the variations they display in their colours, the way they interact with you through the glass… and they do… makes them as individual as you or I. Perhaps we could learn a few things about the kindred nature of Man from watching fish.

Are fish sentient beings? Do they have emotions? Can they feel elation or sadness? You have only to live with them to be certain that they can and do, even if it is not always in a way we completely understand.

I watch the little female holding her mate with what can only be termed tenderness, guarding and protecting him as his condition worsens, and I worry for her too, anticipating her loss as her mate seeks her side and she curves around his swollen body. If love alone could heal him, he would be well.

gorami holding her mate

About Sue Vincent

Sue Vincent is a Yorkshire-born writer and one of the Directors of The Silent Eye, a modern Mystery School. She has written a number of books, both alone and with Stuart France, exploring ancient myths, the mysterious landscape of Albion and the inner journey of the soul. She is owned by a small dog who also blogs. Follow her at scvincent.com and on Twitter @SCVincent Find her books on Goodreads and follow her on Amazon worldwide to find out about new releases and offers. Email: findme@scvincent.com
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79 Responses to A life on the scales

  1. C.E.Robinson says:

    Sue, I had no idea about fish illnesses or emotions until I read your post. I never had any fish pets! How sad your fish got sick and all your efforts can not heal him. How tender & caring his mate! Your story was very touching. 🌹 Christine

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Ritu says:

    Oh I feel so sad reading that!
    I really do think they have the same instincts as us…
    I hope however both fish go, they sleep tight, and sleep safely…

    Liked by 3 people

  3. acflory says:

    I’m so sorry, Sue, it’s always hard to watch something or someone you love start to fail. As far as I’m concerned it doesn’t matter whether they have fins, fur or two naked legs. Love is love.
    Huge hugs to you and Ani.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Pingback: A life on the scales – The Militant Negro™

  5. jenanita01 says:

    so very sad for both fish…

    Liked by 2 people

  6. scifihammy says:

    This is just so sad and I do feel for you and your son. So touching to see the little female caring for her sick mate. I wish there was a kind way to euthanise fish.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. An eye opener for me Sue, so sad, and yet so wondrous at his mate’s diligence and care.
    I believe all creatures feel pain and know when their time is near. Who are we to say they don’t need comfort and tenderness to ease their fear in times of stress and sickness.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Aww so sad! Really sorry…

    Liked by 1 person

  9. stevetanham says:

    Reblogged this on Sun in Gemini and commented:
    From Sue. Such tender observations…

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Such a poignant post Sue. I hope they all have a peaceful passing.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Mary Smith says:

    Oh, Sue those fish certainly put us through the emotional wringer from time to time. I hope they go gently.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Anne Copeland says:

    I reposted this to Facebook. I too have aquarium goldfish in one tank, and two beautiful and strange looking catfish in the other one. I was very touched by your beautiful observations of your fish. After awhile of having them, there is something that seems very human in their traits. My goldfish are right next to my desk, and the largest one comes right to the glass and stares at me for a long time. Eventually he is joined by the next largest and finally the smallest of them comes up in the back. They were those 29 cent goldfish, but I believe that at least the largest two have turned into koi, for they have those big pearly looking scales and also whiskers. I try to find plants that I can get free or cheap to put into the two tanks, for the goldfish love to eat them, and the catfish benefit too. I feel very much your sense of helplessness and mourning as you watch the poor fellow dying. I often think of creatures that I see die, and wonder if another similar creature will somewhere mourn and try to protect a mate or a young one. Thank you for this post, and my heart goes out to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue Vincent says:

      The fish get to know the others in their world… mine reconise both me and the dog and seem as curious about us as we are about them. I just wish there was some way to help.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Anne Copeland says:

        I know. I have cried for every creature that ever was once my companion who left this world. We all know and understand it, but at the same time, it is just hard to see other creatures around us go. There is one thing I remember though that might provide a little comfort for everyone. I always either bury every pet that leaves this earthly plane, or in the cases of some animals, I had them cremated if they were larger. So when I got the ashes from one of my many lifetime dogs, I decided to hold a little ceremony, and I spread her ashes amongst the roses. It was a very short time later and I came out where the rose bushes were, and in the one that got the most ashes, there was the most beautiful bloom I have ever seen. I am not kidding; it was just huge, and what is more, it honestly glowed! Glowed!!! And the color was not the regular color of the roses that bush had. It stayed for more than a week before leaving and I knew for certain that my sweet girl had come back to let me know she was OK, and that she was happy for the life she had with me. I think a fish ceremony would be a lovely thing, with perhaps something beautiful made like a prayer flag out of paper or something that seemed meaningful. When I bury them, I always find each one a tiny blanket from a thrift store or someplace, or I make a special little artsy box, and that will be the creature’s home. Perhaps a good glass of wine and special music, or a special time of the evening or a combination too is a good way to honor him and send him to his new life. It is my way of seeing that my creature and I feel good now. It brings me back to the understanding that there is a circle of life, and we are part of that great circle.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. Widdershins says:

    I almost got to the end without getting teary, almost. 😦 Poor little fishie, may his passing be swift and painless.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. dgkaye says:

    Your post leads me to believe, yes , fish do have emotions. What a sad story. 😦 ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sue Vincent says:

      Yes, so do I…and watching these two is indeed very sad. xx

      Liked by 2 people

    • Anne Copeland says:

      Living with all kinds of creatures through my whole life, I believe that fish and all other creatures have emotions just as we do. We just don’t know how to communicate with them yet, but I have seen too many things to know it is true, and yes, even with fish. We are all sacred.

      Liked by 2 people

      • dgkaye says:

        It doesn’t surprise me at all. If there are horse whisperers I’m sure we could learn to whisper to other living creatures. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Anne Copeland says:

          It’s funny because I do not fear any creatures. I have saved the lives of snakes and spiders and the common earthworm to name a few. Held them in my hands and carried them to a safer place outside. Not one of anything I have ever assisted has ever hurt me. People in India (at least some parts I have read about) live peacefully with all sorts of creatures including spiders, etc. I do so appreciate that respect for life. Every single thing on this earth has its purpose. We may not understand what it is, but it applies to even the most seemingly vile of creatures I am sure.

          Liked by 2 people

  15. Eliza Waters says:

    This is so sad and must be hard to witness, Sue. I’m touched by its mate’s solicitousness. Illness and death are one of our toughest lessons in life. One never can adjust to the loss of life, even when we realize it must be so.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sue Vincent says:

      It is not the loss of life, but the manner of it, I think… but the little fish and his mate are both hard and beautiful to watch.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Anne Copeland says:

      Perhaps what we have come to know is not death as we think of it, but a passing into still another stage of life in a new form. We must surely shed the old skin to go forward in a new form. When we think of deciduous trees, we do not think of them dying when they lose all their leaves. We think of the new leaves and buds and the fruits and flowers that will come after a resting period. Is it possible that this may be true too of mankind and other creatures? It is another thing that no one really knows or can say with surety. We think we know a lot of things, and in some respects, we do, but that doesn’t mean that we have reached the end of the line in learning about them. Yes, we mourn the loss of that specific form, just as Gilgamesh mourned the loss of his friend, Enkidu, but I was interested in how he came to want to have eternal life after the passing of Enkidu, so it does seem to open up that possibility that we will go forward, perhaps in another form. I don’t think any of us can say with certainty, but we also cannot say that it cannot possibly happen.

      Liked by 2 people

  16. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life and commented:
    Sue Vincent writes a post that raises the issue of whether fish are sentient beings and certainly her fish in her aquarium are exhibiting every indication that they are. A thought provoking article. Thanks Sue..

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Oh, Sue, this has actually made me feel really sad.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Tina Frisco says:

    I’m glad tissues were handy when I read this, Sue. Like you, I have no doubt all beings are sentient. I’ve been an animal advocate all of my life and have heard every argument that exists denying sentience. So often I’ve wanted to shake those people in the hope of jolting them into higher consciousness. Sentiment rooted in unresolved issues might cause us to anthropomorphize, but true empathy senses what is real. I feel your pain and send love and light. My heart to your heart, dear Sue ❤️

    Liked by 2 people

  19. Thank you Sue! Never before read so much about the life of fishes. As sad as it is, its a wonder of nature how they care taking. Maybe we all only like fishes inside an bigger aquarium? 😉 Have a good day. Michael

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Poor fish… I hope he’s not in pain, and that she can cope with the loss when his time comes.

    I’ve always believed animals have emotions and their own ways of expressing them. I don’t care what people think of me for thinking so. You just have to pay close attention to them to know it’s true.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sue Vincent says:

      He seems to be okay in himself, thank goodness, otherwise I would have to do something… but I am concerned about his mate who seems quite distressed by the situation.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Anne Copeland says:

      I was thinking that often we see characteristics in creatures that we think are unique to those characters such as saying that a lion is a vicious creature that kills other animals. But you know, if we look at mankind in the same way, we see that we are only different in form. I have seen supposedly vicious creatures take a baby creature that would normally be its prey, and they have protected it and even allow other creatures to suckle if they are females. So really, when we see creatures of pretty nearly any kind, we are simply seeing a reflection of humankind. We look different physically, but we are not. From the lowest order of creatures to the highest, we can always find creatures that are like us in some manner or other. Even plants, when studied laborously as I have done in a plant population study, have amazing characteristics and behaviors that seem to mimic that of humans. I read an amazing study of a man who did experiments with water, speaking badly each time that the one container of water was approached, and nothing but loving and kind words to the other container. He photographed with a microscopic camera the differences in the water and it is beautiful and mysterious what kind words, and equally strange how the horrible words affected the other water. I apologize that I cannot remember his name, but it was published as a book.

      Like

      • Sue Vincent says:

        Some emotions are common to all living creatures, I think, even those creatures to whom we fail to attribute emotions or concious self awareness. Just because we do not know how to recognise or measure them, does not mean they are not there.

        Liked by 1 person

  21. Pingback: Writing Links…5/28/18 – Where Genres Collide

  22. Adele Marie says:

    Oh, Sue, I’m so sorry, I know how emotions tear at you when your fish is sick. We did everything we could for ours, but in the end he just became too sick. xxx

    Liked by 1 person

  23. willedare says:

    Your intimate relationships with and observations about your fish are beautiful. The image of one fish comforting another is haunting. It’s so odd that we human beings have tended to downplay, ignore and otherwise deny the profound experiences of our animal cousins… except it’s not odd at all, because so often we just want to treat them as objects to be bought/sold/raised/worked/killed/cut into pieces/consumed/etc… Your blog post gently and patiently brings all of that into question. Thank you for sharing these sad experiences — and your wisdom — with us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue Vincent says:

      Thank you, Will. My little fish passed peacefully and his mate is beginning to come out of the plants again. She is not alone, there are other fish of her own kind in there too.
      There is a still a debate around whether fish can suffer… with the ability to do so being closely linked to whether or not they have any consciousness or simply react to stimuli. They spend millions on such research, but simply watching creatures for long enough should provide the answer..

      Liked by 1 person

      • Anne Copeland says:

        This has been a wonderful discussion because I think the beginnings of life and the end of what we know as life are one of the big mysteries to all of us. Thank everyone for sharing. I got a lot out of this discussion.

        Like

  24. Sorry about your little fishes, Sue. I do believe that animals (and plants) are emotional creatures despite how difficult that makes our co-habitation on this planet. It’s so much easier to think that they are stupid creatures incapable of feelings. But that’s not how this planet was designed. Beautiful post about compassion and consciousness. ❤

    Like

    • Sue Vincent says:

      I think that is the crux of the matter… if they are all non-sentient, our own actions do not carry the same consequences nor must we make teh same level of moral and ethical choice …or take responsibility.

      Liked by 1 person

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