A few months ago, Milo declared that he wanted to get pet fish. I admit I was not thrilled. It’s not that I hold a particular grudge against fish, but I just have no desire to increase life maintenance tasks at this point. I have enough to do with feeding and cleaning up after my family of humans as it is.
However, Milo is persistent, and as I thought about it, he is the one who feeds Jenny the cat, and he does take care of his paper route with admirable independence. Maybe a fish would be ok, if he understood fully the maintenance he was signing up for.
I tasked him with fish care research, and he turned to the internet with gusto. Turns out that the Internet says that keeping gold fish in a bowl is cruel now-a-days, and a fish needs 1 litre of water per centimeter of body length, other fish to school with, and a filter, and a heater, and points of interest in their habitat in which to develop their brains…..whatever happened to the good old days of a cheerful gold fish in a bowl with a few pebbles on the kitchen counter?
Milo’s anti-fish-cruelty campaign dictated that a bowl was unsuitable, and I didn’t want a tank that was going to require an adult’s help to clean, so for some weeks we were at an impasse.
We went to the fish store for inspiration—Visit Number One. The smallest model fish tank that suited his criteria was too big for my taste on the kitchen counter. After I rejected the argument that it should live as a centrepiece on the dining room table, Milo offered his bedroom, and compromise was in the air. 28 litres was bigger than my original vision, but it was where we landed.
Fish stores charge an exorbitant price for a new glass aquarium, but they’re sold by the scores on TradeMe with all the extras, because other people got tired of maintaining their fish. However, Milo scorned the idea of a used tank…..and since he’s spending his own money, I guess I don’t really care. On Visit Number Two to the fish store we carted home a new aquarium, but the fish, according to the store attendant, would have to wait. The water needed to “condition” for a week to be ready, and she sold us the appropriate colourful bottles of stuff to add. I guess fish these days are too fancy for straight tap water.
Milo dutifully added the potions for a week, then we got Covid, so it was two weeks before we got back to the fish store for Visit Number Three, water sample in hand, ready to choose pets.
But it was not to be. The water indicators weren’t right. Blue, Yellow, and Yellow. No ammonium, no nitrite, but also no nitrate. “That’s good, right?” I asked, hopefully. No, it was not suitable. We were told to keep up the conditioning regime and come back next week. I gathered this time that it was a bacterial nitrogen cycle we were supposed to be establishing, presumably just like the soil one, so I ventured a question: “What if there isn’t enough ammonium to start the cycle, and we’re adding these bacteria into a starving wasteland, so to speak?” The store attendant looked at me. The colours on the indicator strips weren’t right. The water simply wasn’t suitable. We had to come back next week.
In frustration I drove down the road to their pet store competitors, muttering under my breath about uneducated salespeople, and we tried again. Same answer of unsuitability, but this time with a satisfyingly nerdy level of detail, so I believed him. We might have all the bacteria ready to eat ammonia and nitrate, the toxic waste products fish excrete, but because we weren’t detecting their end conversion product (nitrate) we couldn’t be sure. He shared pictures of his own aquariums, gave us some bacteria-laden stones from the store aquarium filters and his twitter handle, and sent us on our way for another week. I was disappointed, but pleased to have encountered such a knowledge base. Unfortunately that store branch is not particularly convenient to home, so we were cast upon the regular pet store attendants for all subsequent Visits.
Jeremiah took a turn for Visit Number Five, but again, no go. No ammonium (good), no nitrite (also good), but no nitrate either (no proof of bacterial processing = bad). They sold us a new potion to sprinkle in the water, advised us to sprinkle in a bit more fish food, and packed us off for another week. I was losing patience and noted that if that potion was required among the bewildering variety of potions to choose from, they should have said that when we asked on Visit Number Two. Milo apparently wasn’t fazed, and took the opportunity to stock up on brilliantly colored plastic plants to decorate his fishless tank.
Jeremiah also performed the fish store taxi run for Visit Number Six. This time he called me while in the store. “They won’t sell me a fish because the pH isn’t right!” he announced in disgust. We finally got nitrate, but the pH was 6.4 which, according to the fish store attendant, would “make the fish’s scales fall off.” It needed to be higher, 7.0. Jeremiah offered to sprinkle in a bit of bicarbonate from his brewing kit, but that was most definitely unsuitable. Personally, I was ready to sacrifice a fish to the bacterial hordes and hope that the pH would balance itself in the aftermath of the feeding frenzy, but the store attendant couldn’t with a free conscience let a fish out of the store in our hands. It would be fish cruelty. Milo came home with a $4.00 fake shell made out of something white and porous to buffer the water, and a thoroughly put out father.
The following week it was my turn on the fish store attempt, Visit Number Seven. The attendant tested the water again. The pH hadn’t budged. It was still unsuitable. “But last time we were here we were told to buy that white shell thing to bring the pH up!” I protested.
“Oh, the Oxishell?” she queried, “that doesn’t change the pH at all, you’ll want some clam shells.” I was ready to wring the poor girl’s neck, and only my responsibility to be a decent parental model in front of my son saved her from a rant about misinformation and ineptitude among salespeople. I squeezed out a “thank you,” turned on my heel, and quickly exited the store. My patience isn’t long at the best of times, and it was decidedly frayed at this point.
Jeremiah was the one to perform the last visit, Visit Number Eight, which finally ended in success. This time they didn’t bring a water sample, figuring if you don’t test it, it can’t be rejected. They also went to a store branch that wouldn’t recognize us from one of our previous seven visits.
Jeremiah sent me a snapshot of the delighted young fish-parent riding home with his 6 tiny neon tetras in their plastic bag, which he proudly installed in his new tank, where none of their scales are falling off.
Now Mr. McCave has six fish and we call them all Dave.