Go fish!

Kristine Gill

The first fish I ever had was in second grade. My sister and I picked out two of the mutated fantail goldfish with the bubble eyes because we probably thought they looked “cool.” We bought a glass bowl and Mom helped us set it up in the living room. We sat on the edge of our pew in church that night, eager to return home to our new pets. When we got back, our fish were doing some weird dance, bobbing lazily at the surface of the water.

I got the next fish in third grade at our elementary school’s annual Halloween carnival. Any 8-year-old who showed promise as a future beer pong player could go home with a sickly feeder fish. I showed such promise. With stunning grace and dumb luck, I landed a ball in one of the mini goldfish bowls with the blue dye. I was rewarded with a surprisingly healthy-looking feeder fish. He was pale orange with nice healthy fins and bright, lidless eyes. I named him “Nerd,” because I happened to be eating the candy on the way home from the carnival and because creative juices flowed through my veins with the likes of such sugary treats.

Feeder fish, despite their somewhat ambiguous name, are actually bred as a source of food for other animals. They’re good at dying and that’s about it. Carnivals pass them out like Smarties or Skittles, and most kids take them home, throw them in cold tap water and cry when their beloved fish does the bobbing-surface dance. Unlike most fathers who pass on a knowledge of sports, music or movies to their children, my dad taught us about snakes, birds, rats, bats, cats and worms. So my background in wildlife and pet care told me to add chlorine drops to the water and let the plastic bag bob in the water while the fish adjusted to the temperature before putting them in the tank.

Nerd gained some comrades over the years. I fed them daily; sometimes three times and always in absurdly large portions, completely ignoring the feeding instructions printed on the side of the container. They were hungry! Their eyes were as huge as dinner plates! They had to compete for food every day, and if I could level out the competition with more flakes, I would.

I have since heard that goldfish will grow to fit their tank. Unfortunately, I hadn’t heard this before we’d invested in a thirty-gallon tank. If you’re having trouble picturing the size, this one was about three feet long, a foot deep and 16 inches high. In other words, it was massive, and our little feeder fish flourished.

Nerd grew to the size of small carp. Over the years his pale orange had faded to white. Once, he got stuck in the decorative rock at the bottom of the tank. I cried and cried because we thought he was a goner, but just to be sure, Dad used a hammer to break the ceramic and free him. Turns out he was still alive and just liked getting stuck in rocks! Nerd lived on.

In 11th grade my mother remarried, we moved into a new house, and my pets decided to start dying. Looking back, I’m sure it was a collaborative effort. First our cockatiel Lenny caught a draft, stopped perching, and I found him sprawled on the floor of his cage before school one morning. Next, my guinea pig lost function in his legs, hobbled around for a few weeks and then died. I found out later that it was due to a severe lack of Vitamin C — completely preventable! But the worst was yet to come.

Nerd and some other fish took ill. They stopped eating, their fins started fraying, they looked bloated and had white spots. I’d treated similar symptoms in the past, but this was different. One day, conveniently before my piano lesson, I walked down to the basement to find four of nine fish belly-up — Nerd included.

It was the end of the world. I ran up to my room, threw myself on my bed and wailed hysterically. It seems a bit dramatic looking back, but as with most pets, I was convinced Nerd was immortal, that he would be there when I started college and got my first job. He was going to be at my wedding and in the delivery room when I gave birth. He’d been there for everything else! The only plus was that the overwhelming grief excused me from my piano lesson that evening.

I haven’t given up on fish. Nerd was 9-years-old when he died, and if I could change the life of one feeder fish like that, I’d continue working my magic. I acquired three new fish in September. The one from my ex died the week I broke up with him, severing all ties indefinitely. The other two are still kickin’. I feed them too much. We’re gunning for 10 years this time around.

Kristine Gill is a sophomore newspaper journalism major and a columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact her at [email protected].