I’m Not Just A Fish. I am a living, breathing, sentient animal. I can feel content, confident and well. I can feel fear, hunger, discomfort, stress and illness. I may pine for a lost tank mate, a lost partner. I can have likes and dislikes, friends and enemies.
I can communicate with others. I can socialise, collaborate. I can interact with other fish, other animals, even humans. I can see, hear, sleep, taste, process information. I act on instinct, and on learned knowledge. I can learn. I can remember.
I can defend my babies as a lioness would her cubs. I can see colours humans cannot. I can live in environments humans cannot. I can experience my world in a way humans cannot. I am a brilliant piece of nature’s design. I am not just a fish; I am a life.
If you take me into your home there are a few things we need to be clear on, so there are no misunderstandings or awkward situations. I’m not the simple, ‘dump me in a container of water and it’ll be just fine’ type of guy that some of you seem to think I am. I am a complex creature and I need you to understand that.
You should research my needs before you buy me. Ultimately it is you who is responsible for my welfare. There is a wealth of information available at your fingertips nowadays so there’s really no excuse for not finding out about me before you get me. “But no one told me …” cuts no ice with me, I don’t want to die because you bought me on a whim or didn’t find out about me properly. Shops are not obliged to take me back (and I don’t want to go back), and public aquariums are full to bursting with fish they weren’t expecting to have to look after.
Trust me, I don’t want to be stuck with you in a dodgy situation any more than you want to be stuck with me when I’ve outgrown the tank you thought would do ‘for now’. Please research me before you get me, as you should do for any animal you’re taking into your home. There is a lot of ‘perceived knowledge’ about me, I’ve heard some right corkers in my time (mostly containing the phrases “everyone knows that fish …” and “it’s just a fish”) so I’m here to put the record straight.
Money talks … no one ever promised it would talk sense though
Please do not place a financial value on my life. How much you paid for me is not directly proportional to the requirements I have; cheap to buy doesn’t mean cheap to keep. Do not judge me by how much I cost you; £1.50 or £150.00 – I am a life. Do not rate me above or below others, we are all lives. You can buy another fish, but I cannot buy another life. How much you paid for me is irrelevant to me, my life is priceless. To me.
Please don’t believe the myths surrounding fishkeeping. Grow to the size of my tank? Seriously? Do I look like a bonsai tree to you? Sheesh. Three second memory? Do me a favour, I’ve got a perfectly good memory thank you very much. Research has proved that I can remember things so please don’t think that bloke down the pub knows better. Talking of which, that friend of a friend of yours, the one who kept a goldfish in a bowl in 1973 and it was all fine … it wasn’t, trust me. We’re not in 1973 anymore, things have moved on, become more enlightened. We all need to move with the times.
Why do you want me?
I’d like you to have chosen me for a good reason, not just on a whim on a chance trip to the shops. I’m happy to act as a nice bit of home décor but I’m only going to be doing that properly if you look after me properly.
I can help you teach your children about life and death but let’s be clear on this – you’re the teacher, I’m the ‘glamorous assistant’. We’ll all be happier if they learn about death from natural causes after a long and comfortable life. Learning about premature death from ignorance, neglect, indifference – that’s a hard lesson to learn for anyone, especially me! I can help you and your family engage with the natural world, I can teach you chemistry, biology, maths and so much more. Not bad for a little scaly fellow, huh?
You’d like to breed from me? Well that sounds like it could be fun! Please make sure you have somewhere for my babies to go though, a new home for them, or an agreement with a shop to take them and sell them responsibly. And if I get a bit old for romance I’ll still need somewhere to live so make sure you’ve thought that through and got me a retirement home lined up. I’ll only produce healthy babies if you look after me properly and provide me with what I need.
While we’re talking about breeding (forgive me, it’s one of my favourite subjects!) did you know that some fish are brilliant parents? Baby Discus feed on their mum and dad’s slimecoat, it’s not dissimilar to mammals feeding their young really. Others guard their babies ferociously, fighting off bigger fish who think they’ll have an easy snack. Some carry their babies around in their mouths to keep them safe until they’re big enough to face the world. We’re not just fish, we’re parents too.
You think I’ll be a nice, soothing to watch, stress reducing, calming addition to your home? I will be, if you look after me properly. If you don’t, I think we can safely say that the stress levels will be quite severe for both of us. I understand that there are many reasons you might choose to bring me into your home; whatever your reason please ensure you’ve thought it through properly so we can both enjoy our time together.
Pet or hobby?
I’m not sure I really mind which I am. Either way I still have the same care requirements. Your perception of me shouldn’t change the level of care you provide for me. Just because I can’t sit on your lap and watch TV with you doesn’t mean I can’t be a pet, it’s all a matter of perception. I might not be furry, some people might even think I’m not very attractive (humph, take a look in the mirror there!) but you don’t need fur and puppy dog eyes to be a pet. Those of us on the slimy, scaly end of the spectrum can be pets too you know! If I’m a pet what’s in it for me? Well I’ll tell you: a lovely home, a constant supply of food, safety from predators, lots of good care, the chance to do my fishy thing in some serious style – not too shabby a deal there from where I’m swimming.
What I’m not
I’m not a toy; train sets, lego, playstations … those are toys. I’m not a party favour; quite how anyone could mistake me for a slice of birthday cake and a balloon is beyond me. I’m not a decoration to go on tables at a wedding; have a ‘goldfish bowl’ (could we please just call them glass bowls? The whole ‘goldfish bowl’ thing makes my scales crawl!) by all means but fill it with pretty candles, some lovely flowers, sweets for your guests. I’m not a status symbol. If I impress your friends that’s great, but that should just be a bonus of having me shouldn’t it?
I’m most definitely not a prize. Bags of sweets and cuddly toys are prizes. It is, beyond a shadow of a doubt and let there be no confusion here as this is something us fish feel very strongly about indeed, an appalling practice and one I politely request you to avoid at all costs. I am a life, not a fairground prize.
“Cats have staff”
This is one area where cats and I agree. By taking me into your home you become my chef, my cleaner, my housekeeper, my personal shopper, my doctor, my personal assistant, my security guard, my dietician (by the way, when it comes to my diet, please make sure you understand the difference between not overfeeding me, and not giving me enough). I can’t do these things myself (interior design now, I can do that, those plants will look far nicer over here and that rock is going to look so much more zen once I’ve dug all the sand from under it) so you need to do them for me, even if you don’t feel like it today. I don’t feel like swimming around in dirty water so get that water change going!
Communicating with me
Dr. Dolittle isn’t the only one that can talk with the animals you know! You can too, it just takes a bit of practice. I can communicate in a variety of means with other fish even though I can’t talk (although as a species I can make a remarkable and surprising amount and range of noises) but I do body language extremely well indeed. If you take the time to learn what I’m saying, to understand when I’m feeling off colour, or when I’m stressed, or when I’m feeling fine and dandy and full of the joys of spring you’ll be better able to look after me. You’ll spot signs of impending illness, and you can sit back in confidence and admire me when I’m looking my finest and strutting my stuff.
If you’re going away from home
If you have to leave me alone please make sure I am provided for while you are away. I’d like someone to come in and check up on me if you are away for a long time to make sure I haven’t become ill, and that all my equipment is working properly. If I need regular feeding please make sure you’ve got that sorted out before you go, I don’t mind if its an auto-feeder or Auntie Jean but I will mind if I don’t get enough food while you’re off enjoying yourself on holiday!
I don’t really like those white vacation blocks, they don’t taste as nice as my normal food and sometimes they make a mess in my water. Not all fish will show that they’re pleased to see you when you get back, but some of us will. Goldfish are well known for knowing who their keeper is, and getting excited to see them.
Whoa, whoa, whoa, back up a minute there – why am I being rehomed might I ask? What did I do wrong? Don’t you like me any more? Am I not good enough for you? Am I not interesting enough? Don’t tell me you didn’t research me properly and now you find I’m not what you expected …? Unforeseen circumstances perhaps? I’ll grant you these can afflict anyone but me growing to the size I should do isn’t an unforeseen circumstance! I hope you didn’t think I was an easy, starter fish, one to be moved on to make way for the more ‘interesting’ ones. And I really hope you didn’t just get me to help you mature your tank … if I find out that’s the case we’ll be having some Strong Words!
If you do have to rehome me, and I’ll admit that sometimes there are good reasons for you to do so, it is your responsibility to make sure I go somewhere I will be looked after properly. If I go to live with another fishkeeper I would like you to ensure they understand my needs and have a suitable home ready for me. If you decide to take me to a shop I would like you to ensure that it is reliable, trustworthy, experienced and able to accommodate me. I would also like you to ensure they will not sell me to someone who won’t look after me properly.
Being rehomed is stressful for me, ask anyone who’s had to move house! Do not forget that you chose me and took me into your home; I didn’t ask to come and live with you so please be responsible if you choose to rehome me.
Do not release me into the wild
Even if I came from the wild I cannot go back, not even if you could take me back to the exact place I was caught. I may now harbour pathogens that my wild relations would not be immune to. Depending on where you live it’s often illegal to release me if I am a non-native species. I could wreak havoc on the local environment, killing native species and upsetting the natural balance of the ecosystem. Ultimately I’d probably die an untimely death. It will not be a kindness to me. I am now dependent on you.
My tank is my life support system, if something goes wrong then I’ll go wrong too so you need to make sure you check all my equipment regularly and keep it (and me!) well maintained and in full working order.
Please include health issues when you research me. If I get ill you’ll need to know what the signs are, and how to treat me. I don’t like being ill any more than you do, and I’ll do my best to let you know if I’m not feeling too good. If you have to seek advice please don’t delay. You should be honest about my situation and listen to the advice given. I don’t care if your pride is injured or you have to face uncomfortable truths. Don’t let me die because you refuse to accept you’ve made a mistake, or are afraid of looking silly. The fact is that most of my health problems are caused by the environment I live in, and the care I receive, so if you find you’ve made a mistake or something has gone wrong you’ll look a lot more silly if you don’t sort it out.
While we’re on the subject of health, I see there have been a few stories in the news recently about people taking their goldfish to vets and paying a lot of money for operations that will improve their lives. How come this is newsworthy? Hmm? The thousands of cats, dogs, rabbits, horses etc. that have millions of pounds spent on them at vets don’t get a story on the BBC. Well it’s high time it wasn’t seen as unusual to take me to the vet if I’m not doing so well! There are plenty of specialist aquatics vets around and they most certainly won’t think you’re unusual to want to have me treated professionally, no matter what sort of fish I am. The vet will be pleased to see a caring and responsible owner, and I can assure you that I will be delighted to see the vet!
When I die
This might seem a bit bleak but death comes to us all, even us fish, and as such is a topic that does need some discussion. I can live a remarkably long time, much longer than most people think. Most of us can easily live as long, if not longer, than your average family dog. Now, I’d really like to see out my days to the nth degree and not have to cut it short because something has gone wrong with my care. So I’m relying on you to make my life as long as possible.
There’s some very dodgy information around regarding euthanasia for fish. I cannot stress firmly enough how seriously I take this, there are ways and means of doing it humanely so please see the article in the further reading section for guidance. I’m not just a fish, I’m a life and I deserve a peaceful and humane end to that life. Being left alone, in the dark, distressed and slowly freezing to death in a plastic bag in your freezer is not the way I want to go.
If I should become so unwell that all concerned agree that all hope is lost and my suffering should end, please be sure that you will be able to help me when I need you to. If you can’t do it find please find someone who can, take me to a vet if you have to but make sure I get the help I need. I do ask that you always, always, always get another opinion before you make any final decisions about ending my life. Never act in haste as there is no ‘back’ button on this one, no CTRL Z undo.
Please face up to the fact that whatever words you dress it up in – putting me to sleep, putting me out of my misery, sending me to the rainbow pond – you are ending my life. It has to be the last resort.
Please don’t flush me. If I’m still alive it will lead to a truly horrendous death (just think what else goes down the loo!) and if I’m dead I shouldn’t be put into the waterways to spread whatever disease or infection killed me.
Most importantly it’s ok to cry when I’m gone; it’s ok to miss me. I’m not just a fish remember, my life was a part of your life.
Furthering my cause – what you can do to help me
Don’t panic, I’m not expecting you to dress up as a catfish, climb the Houses of Parliament and drape protest banners across the face of Big Ben. But you can do a lot to dispel the “it’s just a fish” attitude. Help others sort out their fish if you see them getting it wrong. Talk about me to friends and family; tell them about my habits, my funny little ways. Tell them about my environment, my history. Tell them about others like me. Make me real, alive, to someone who doesn’t ‘get’ fish.
If anyone thinks you’re a bit odd that’s their problem, not yours, what’s odd about engaging with the natural world? About understanding animals and their environments? Don’t worry about what other people think, I’m your fish and you have every right to go on about me (and on, and on!). If anyone says “but it’s just a fish” you can help them understand why I’m not just a fish. Don’t be shy about me, if I could talk I’d be shouting from the rooftops about how fabulous I am!
If you see bad practice in a shop, or anywhere come to that, have a friendly chat with them, or write a letter to them when you get home. I can’t speak up for myself so I’m counting on you to help me out here. If you see good practice why not say so? Everyone likes to know they’re doing a good job and are appreciated.
You need to abide by all relevant legislation regarding animal welfare. This may differ from country to country, if your country doesn’t have anything take a lead from one that does. Find a good one and spread a bit of best practice. I’d appreciate it if you could take the time to have a look at the Animal Welfare Act 2006 as it has very important information regarding me.
And finally …
I’m looking forward to coming to live with you, I want to be my best for you, to show you how amazing I am in all my glory. I’ll need your help with this so please, don’t let me down.
Have a look around the rest of the site as there’s lots of information there that will help explain further why I’m not just a fish. I’d like you to pay particular attention to these though please:
Researching fishkeeping – how, what and why?
The Animal Welfare Act 2006
Do fish grow to the size of their tank?
Raising your concerns
Now is the time to be ethical (Nathan Hill at Practical Fishkeeping)
A-Z of Fish Health: Part 1, A-E (Practical Fishkeeping)
A-Z of Fish Health: Part 2, F-L (Practical FIshkeeping)
A-Z of Fish Health: Part 3, M-R (Practical Fishkeeping)
A-Z of Fish Health: Part 4, S-Z (Practical Fishkeeping)
Find a fish vet (OATA)
Painful fish deaths? You might be guilty (article on euthanasia by Nathan Hill at Practical Fishkeeping)
Author: The Fish
Photos courtesy of: Fishlady, Brigitte, Viriconia, Howard Miatt and Suey.
The fish pictured here live with various members of Team INJAF, or with their friends. We are real fish, featured with our real names.
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