Friday, April 27, 2012

the secret lives of goldfish

One of our goldfish is dying. 


I dare you to read my mind...
This is the second time for this particular fish.   The first time was at least a year ago.  It started acting strangely, lying listlessly on the bottom of the tank for a day or so, which was followed by a phase of darting frantically from side to side, as though his tail were on fire, or he were desperately fleeing from a goldfish-sized Grim Reaper.  It’s really kind of sad to watch a goldfish flee from the Grim Reaper in a tank roughly the size of a motorcycle helmet; it would be like watching one of us trying to dodge him in a locked cruise ship cabin.  From there, he appeared to go into something like a fish coma, floating through the tank in strange positions, such as pointing straight down, or tilting sideways like a swamped sailboat.  After about a week of exhibiting these strange behaviors, he must have been granted a reprieve from said Reaper, because he mysteriously – and abruptly – returned to health, and has been a perfectly normal goldfish since.  That is, until last week, when I saw him laying on the gravel at the bottom of the tank.  At first I had forgotten this had happened once before, and I prepared to break the news of his imminent demise to the rest of the family.  Then he started his frenzied, tail-on-fire swimming, and it all came back to me. 

Our fish tank sits on a dresser right next to my writing desk, which I affectionately refer to as my perch (in the avian sense, not the fish species; that would be weird).  Right now, he’s resting limply over the side of an overturned ceramic seashell, looking like he’s at death’s express elevator door, just waiting for it to close and give him his final ride to the top of the tank.  But his fins continue to swish faintly, and his gills are moving, so who knows?  Two minutes later he is swimming head-first repeatedly into the gravel, and two minutes after that, doing a pretty good imitation of an alligator’s death roll.

I helplessly wonder about this goldfish.  Is he suffering?  Sure looks that way to me.  Is he really dying?  I wish I knew.  Is the whole thing a desperate bid for attention?  I wouldn’t have asked this, but right now he is peering at me, one huge eye filling up a small hole inside a large, hollow rock, as though surreptitiously gauging my reaction.  Wouldn’t it be more humane to put him out of his apparent misery?  But I remind myself that he recovered once before; wouldn’t it be wrong to give up on him when he’s already demonstrated such amazing recuperative powers?  (In my mind, I keep hearing the classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail line, spoken by the old man who is being ignominiously hauled away with a cartful of people felled by the Plague, pleading feebly:  “But I’m not dead yet…”)

Here’s the basic problem:  there’s no way to know what’s really going on inside that goldfish head.  Is he begging me to end it, or is he praying I don’t jump the gun?  My instinct, as always, is to err on the side of inaction.  Besides, I hate having to make these kinds of decisions.  I’m a guy who has a hard time replacing plants in the garden, because I feel like I shouldn’t be so judgmental with their lives.  Oh, you’re not growing fast enough.  Your leaves aren’t green enough.  You don’t look healthy enough. Well, I suppose that’s it for you then!  I don’t feel right playing God, even with vegetation.  After all, they’re still living things.  Likewise, if scientists could ever figure out how to communicate with insects, I would gladly cover the front end of my car with warning labels written in words they’d understand:  This object is EXTREMELY DANGEROUS!  Avoid when moving!  And stay off the roads, especially the highways!  And the pest control guy comes every third Monday of the month.  I’M DOING EVERYTHING I CAN TO HELP YOU HERE!  I tremble to think what would have happened if Old Yeller had been my dog.  My whole family would have rabies, the dog would be gnawing on my spleen, and I’d still be like, “You can’t kill him!  It’s not his fault!  He deserves to live!”

Simply put, I don’t like being in a position of having to choose between life and death.  For anyone out there who may be contemplating making me the executor of your medical power of attorney, this is something you’ll want to add to your list of concerns.  Unless, of course, your goal is to stay here as long as possible, no matter how much suffering is involved.  Apparently, that I can do.

Of course, the natural impulse when you see something that’s clearly in pain is to try and help it.  But when it comes to goldfish, you quickly discover there’s not much you can do.  I don’t know of any vets that tend to the kinds of animals you can buy twelve for a dollar at a bait shop, and you can’t exactly drop a Tylenol into the tank and assume it will make him feel better.  Can you?  Hmmm, hang on a second…

Nope, turns out you can’t.

Oh, I hope I didn’t give you the wrong idea; I didn’t actually try it myself, I just switched windows so I could ask Google, “Can you give Tylenol to a fish?”  It so happens that a woman posed a similar question two years ago on Yahoo Answers.  Her boyfriend accidentally did this while they were visiting a catfish farm in Myrtle Beach. The couple then became embroiled in an argument about whether the catfish subsequently died (apparently they didn’t wait around themselves to find out).  The best response to this burning controversy was given by Gary C., who noted that the acetaminophen in Tylenol is toxic to the liver, and fish have livers.  Because of their much smaller size, he concludes, it’s likely that it was lethal.  He then goes on to question whether the catfish actually ate the pill at all.  “While catfish,” he says, “have been known to eat some strange things like old shoes, it still seems unlikely that a catfish would eat Tylenol.”  Gee, Gary, I may be way off base here, but it seems far more likely to me that a catfish would try to ingest a pill that bears even a vague resemblance to a food pellet before it tried to eat an old shoe.  But perhaps he was referring instead to the well-documented preference catfish have for Nuprin.   My favorite response was from “known2wi…,” who opined that a Tylenol overdose probably wouldn’t be fatal, “…but you might have to check him into a drug rehab.”  

This is just another good example why I say: “You can ask Google anything, as long as you’re not too particular about the answers.”  And while I’m not willing to speculate on the fate (or sobriety, for that matter) of the catfish, I feel safe in predicting that anybody who is determined to go public over every little point of contention with their significant other, no matter how ridiculous it is, and worse, seek to arbitrate them on the internet, is probably going to have a hard time maintaining a long term relationship.

The distractions of shoe-eating catfish aside, my problem hasn’t diminished at all.  I still have a poor, sick fish who may or may not be in his very death throes, and I need to decide between mercy killing and miraculous recovery.  How am I supposed to know what to do?  How do you get inside the mind of a goldfish when they give almost no sign of actually having one? 

But that’s not entirely fair.  They do recognize me, and they recognize their food.   I suspect they recognize me only because of my connection to their food.  I’m certain it’s the only reason they seem to get excited whenever I go near their tank, even when it’s just to turn on the light, or grab the cell phone charger from the drawer below them. 

Or, maybe they’re smarter than I give them credit for…

Goldfish #1:    Hey, check it out!  The human’s coming this way.
Goldfish #2:    So what?  We already ate today.
Goldfish #1:    If we act like we haven’t, maybe he’ll feed us again. 
Goldfish #2:    We do that all time.  He’s not going to fall for it…
Goldfish #1:    C’mon, what have you got to lose?  Besides, there’s        always a chance he’s developed Alzheimer’s.  How will we know unless we keep trying?
Goldfish #2:    I guess it’s worth a shot.  Hey, if this works, we could be eating seven or eight times a day!
Goldfish #1:    Come on, Alzheimer’s! Daddy wants a snack!

That’s what it feels like when I go near their tank.  It feels like they think my name is Alzheimer’s. 

At any rate, it’s clear that food does bring out their highest cognitive powers.  The way they wriggle like happy puppies in anticipation of being fed, the way they precisely target every last speck of food.  It’s the only time you really see the divine spark of intelligent life in goldfish; well, that and whenever I have to catch them so I can clean the tank, which is always an ordeal and somehow always ends up with a large puddle on the floor, fish swimming in half a tank of water, and me soaked to the shoulders and fighting down the urge to roll out the big wet/dry vac from the shed.

We actually have two goldfish in the tank right now: the ailing one, who, under normal conditions, looks just like every other goldfish you’ve ever seen, and a beautiful, frilly-finned deluxe edition.  This other one has a rich, vibrant orange color, and a long, lacy tail that scrolls out behind it when it swims like a silk banner.  It is by far the prettiest goldfish we’ve ever had.  Because of the tank’s proximity to my perch, I often find myself transfixed when I’m supposed to be writing, watching it randomly swish around, glinting like a bicycle reflector.  It’s like watching a campfire, or an Ingrid Bergman movie; the effect is completely hypnotic. 

I can’t help wondering what it thinks of all this attention…

Goldfish #1:    Come here a minute, would you? 
Goldfish #2:    Is it important?  I’m counting bubbles here…
Goldfish #1:    Yes, come here, quick.
Goldfish #2:    (swimming over) So, what is it?
Goldfish #1:    The human’s staring at me again. 
Goldfish #2:    Is that all? (starts to swim away)
Goldfish #1:    Wait, come back!  It’s really creeping me out!
Goldfish #2:    Yeah?
Goldfish #1:    Yeah, he’s been staring at me for ten minutes now.  Like I’m the only thing he sees.  Look at his expression; it’s so vacant, so empty.  It’s horrible!  I don’t think I can take it anymore. 
Goldfish #2:    Well, just ignore him.  Go hide behind the fake plant for awhile.
Goldfish #1:    It doesn’t work!  I’ve tried going behind the rock and waiting until he looks away.  But when I come back out, everything will be good for a few minutes, and then I’ll just kind of glance over, and there he is, staring again.  It’s freaking me out!
Goldfish #2:    Well, I don’t know what to do…
Goldfish #1:    I swear I’m going to lose it.  It’s getting so bad, I’m seeing his big, glassy eyes in my sleep.  Wait, did he just drool?
Goldfish #2:    I dunno.  I think I missed it.
Goldfish #1:    Argh! I can’t even think when he’s staring at me like that!  I just want the nightmares to stop!  Do something!
Goldfish #2:    What?  We’re goldfish! We live in a clear plastic tank.  We have a fake shell, a fake plant, a fake rock, and some gravel.  What do you want me to do?  Build a rocketship, fly over there, and poke him in the eyes?  Let’s face it, we’re not exactly loaded with options here. 
Goldfish #1:    Maybe you can swim around in front of me a little bit?  Break his line of vision, maybe try to distract him.  Do a little shimmy or something to get his attention, anything. 
Goldfish #2:    Shimmy?!  I don’t – hey, wait, the phone’s ringing.  He’s getting up.  It looks like he’s going to go answer it in the kitchen. 
Goldfish #1:    Whew!  What a relief!  I was close; I was this close to losing it!  It’s torture, I tell you, torture!
Goldfish #2:    Sorry, buddy. That must really suck. 
Goldfish #1:    (leans heavily against the shell and takes a few long, deep breaths) Alright, I’m starting to feel a little better. (another pause, then turns to his friend) Now, tell me more about this rocketship…

In fact, it’s so bad that when I get up to write at four a.m., I have to leave the lights off and write in complete darkness, so I won’t be distracted by the mesmerizing orange undulations on the periphery of my vision.  I call my writing spot the perch; maybe I really am part bird of prey. 

Despite the dramatic symptoms exhibited by our sick fish, the diva goldfish with the billowing golden fins remains the picture of health.  I wonder what it thinks of being cooped up with a fish who’s either terminally ill, or at best, psychologically unstable (he’s now swimming upside down).  It’s such a small tank; if it were me, I’d be breathing through my fins and doing everything I could to keep my distance.  Yet, it gives no sign of recognizing the other’s distress, or even its existence.  For some reason, I find this disturbing.

Now that I think about it, it’s always been that way between these fish.   They have always seemed to be completely oblivious to the other’s presence, as though they were by themselves in the tank.  Then I realize why this bothers me.  Since my daughter brought the two of them home from a school carnival, I have just assumed that they had some kind of pre-existing relationship.  I always imagined that there was a reason, a story that explained how these two fish wound up together as the sole occupants of our fish tank…

Maybe it was the story of two fish who start out in the big tank together, meet, and fall in love, but are kept apart by their families’ long-standing hatred for each other.  Then one day, when things are at their worst, they are miraculously pulled from the tank and given to a young girl who brings them home and gives them to her father, who puts them in a hexagonal two-gallon tank with a fake seashell, fake plant, and fake rock.  But it doesn’t matter because they are finally together and finally alone!  They are now free to live in peace, and love each other with all the madness in their souls (Born to Run is about two goldfish, isn’t it?).  And that’s what they’ve been doing for the last two years.    

Maybe they were strangers, living in the big tank without ever chancing to meet, each one lonely amidst the swimming throngs, longing for someone to love.  And then one day, they are randomly scooped up together by the net of fate, and find themselves in a brave new world, just the two of them.  Even though they are strangers, there is a romantic spark between them.  They have to work hard to overcome their class differences (she was a top feeder; he, a bottom), and they have their rough times, but in the end they learn to love each other deeply and fully.  And that’s what they’ve been doing for the last two years.

Or maybe it was the story of best friends, friends who started out as fry together, went to school together, and became closer than shark and remora.  Then one day, one of them is swooped up by the net, to be given as a prize in some children’s carnival game.  The other one fights against all odds in a desperate attempt to save his life-long friend, actually flipping himself at the last possible second out of the water and into the net, just so they can face whatever uncertain future they must face, together.  They end up in a completely foreign environment but quickly adapt, and go on to have as many adventures as a two- gallon tank can hold.  Kind of the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid of fish.  And that’s what they’ve been doing for the last two years. 

But now, with one of them clearly suffering, and in all likelihood about to die, and the other looking completely unaware, those stories are exposed as nothing more than absurd, presumptive fictions.  I could try to contort it further, by saying that Sundance is nobly putting on a brave face, trying to evince total faith in Butch’s ability to dodge one final bullet.  But Sundance’s face is as blank as it has always been; it’s just that it’s only now that I’m noticing that it’s always been that way.

How do they regard each other?  Do they regard each other at all?  It’s pretty clear now there was no Romeo and Juliet with this pair, no class comedy, no Butch and Sundance.  In reality, they’re just two goldfish who, by sheer coincidence, ended up in the same tank.  Maybe they’ve only ever been casual acquaintances.  Maybe they’ve had an unenthusiastic partnership, each waiting for someone better to come along.  Maybe they never could stand each other.

Or, worst of all, maybe the blank face is all there is.  I’m not sure why this would be worse than being forced to live in close quarters with someone you can’t stand, but somehow, I feel certain it would be. 

I suppose it’s ironic that you can watch a pair of goldfish swim around in a hexagonal, two-gallon tank on a dresser near your desk, living their lives in the open, completely exposed at all times to your observation, and yet discover after two years that you didn’t really know them at all.  Not only that, but now you’re not even sure there ever was anything to know.

I’ve come all this way, only to find that the secret lives of goldfish probably exist only in my imagination.  It’s kind of a depressing conclusion to reach, and probably explains why more people don’t write about their goldfish.  I wish I could cleverly invent some positive twist I could put on this, some way to salvage a happy ending, but I feel like I’ve totally lost my inspiration.  

So, in lieu of an actual ending, how about we wrap things up with some funny goldfish videos.  No reason we should all be depressed. 

Meanwhile, I think I’m going to go lie down. 

P.S.  I picked out very short video clips, primarily because it turns out that goldfish just aren’t that funny, and they get even less funny with each additional second of video.  The first one is actually more  funny/strange, and the second is more cute than funny. The third is funny only because it shows what a low standard for humorous entertainment goldfish owners become accustomed to:    


  1. I don't get this. "wo minutes later he is swimming head-first repeatedly into the gravel, and two minutes after that, doing a pretty good imitation of an alligator’s death roll." Could you please enlighten me on this? I keep following all your posts hope you can regularly post more. I get very useful information here. Thanks for having this.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. First of all, thanks for your comments, and I'm glad you find my blog edifying! Second, it sounds like you're confused about the goldfish's behavior. It was strange, but I was kind of watching him as I was writing, and he kept swimming head-first into the gravel, kind of like walking into a wall, over and over. When I next looked at him a few minutes later, he was rolling in circles on his side, like you would expect a goldfish to do if it were rolling down a hill, except there was no hill. He was just doing all these strange things as I happened to be writing about him. I hope that clears things up a little bit for you...

      I have no plan to stop blogging, and if I can post more often, I certainly will. It helps to know you're out there reading!

      By the way, I deleted my previous response only because I forgot to get rid of an extra line of gobbedly-gook before hitting the 'publish' button.

  2. The guy in the first video is like the fish whisperer. Amazing;)

    1. Fish whisperer! I see a new Animal Planet series...

  3. In regards to your lack of desire to play "God," I believe you have had a dog or two that have lived way, way past their prime. One I remember seemed to be growing a second head on its face.

    1. Obviously, my approach must be the right one, right? Or are you suggesting euthanasia was in order? Careful, my friend, certain youthful people might soon be seeing us as way, way past our prime. And McClintock's second head never did start speaking for itself, so technically it's more like a head and a half.

  4. You've perfectly described nitrate (note: not nitrite) poisoning. It's a cruel, painful death. The fish essentially gets the bends. Can I see a brownish spot on its head? If so, that's because its blood goes brown as a result of the nitrate reacting with its blood.

    So it doesn't happen again, you need to look into keeping a healthy fish tank.
    I'm assuming the fish recovered the first time because the tank was cleaned eg a water change.

    You probably have too many fish in the tank, overfeed them, and do not change the water frequently enough. Do you have a biological filter? Is the tank "cycled"? Do you check ammonia, nitrite and nitrate levels? It's a common mistake to think keeping goldfish is easy and simple, however people don't realise that goldfish are actually one of the "dirtiest" fish in that they foul a tank quickly and so need a lot of maintenance. A bowl the size of a helmet is also very unsuitable.

    I hope before you keep any more goldfish you set up a proper tank and educate yourself about keeping fish.

  5. Thank you for enlightening me on the complexities of owning goldfish. I readily admit that I am one of those who thought goldfish needed little more than food and water to live a happy, fulfilling life. Of course that was a stupid assumption, and I thank you for pointing that out.

    It does further reinforce the main thesis of the post, that goldfish do have secret lives, and how hard it is for a human being (we stupid ones, anyway) to really know what another living thing actually thinks or feels. Here I thought I was providing adequate care, and now I learn that the strange behaviors I was witnessing were suffering and anguish, cruelly inflicted on them in my ignorance by me.

    Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to this post and for sharing what you know with me and the readers of thunderstrokes. You will no doubt find it discouraging to know that we currently have two new goldfish living in the same tank. But perhaps you will find it somewhat comforting to also know that I plan to take your advice to heart, and implement your recommendations. I wholeheartedly encourage anyone who has made the same mistake I have to do the same.