Pam’s Pictorama Post: Kim and I are largely the stay-cation types and enjoy the quietude of Manhattan on holidays as a rule. This week we took a walk together in the late morning of July 4. One of the cat dishes had broken earlier in the week and, as our beloved family owned store on York Avenue, Calling All Pets, was closed for the holiday, we wandered into Petco on Lexington and 86 Street to see if we could procure a replacement. We did, almost immediately, scoring the exact small white dish with pawprints in a design around the outside.
While at the check-out counter with our purchase we noticed a single bright blue Fighting Fish, a Betta, in a container at the register. He was in the sort of one serving size container you get for take-out soup and seemed a tad forlorn. Never having gone further into the store than the catfood display at the front, I had not realized that they sold fish. We decided to wander back and have a look after a brief discussion about whether or not we should add this single fish to our lives – we decided that only Cookie and Blackie would win as a result of that decision. (Our only foray into fish ownership, such as it is, was the subject of an early popular blog post Ode to a Shrimp which can be read here.)
Let me begin by stating that there is an official broad Butler family prohibition on pet stores. Betty, my mom, has actively protested them and has especially been involved with the elimination of puppy mills, at the source and in stores. My mother’s animal rights involvement is indeed another future post as she is an amazing person, but suffice it to say, I have never purchased an animal from a pet store. However, Petco did host the adoption day where we ultimately acquired Cookie and Blackie so it is in a sense their ancestral home. We discovered a small ongoing adoption center for dogs at the back of the store and, although they sell birds, there was a sign encouraging the adoption of those as well and notification that they had a parrot available. The bird display was a bit low-key and sad. Although they seem to have a nice community here.
However, fish tanks fascinate me and remind me of my childhood, so after a quick look at the birds we went over to examine the tanks. I never did find the friends of the Betta and perhaps he was up front because he was the last to be sold. Siamese Fighting Fish, are in the gourami fish family and, although they are gorgeous, colored in deep jewel tones with extravagant long fins, they are called fighting fish because the males are so aggressive that they cannot be in a tank together or they will fight to the death. I always believed they could not be in a tank with any other fish, but my reading online for this blog states otherwise.
The fish tank of my childhood was a tribute to the tanks of my mother’s own childhood, informed by her experience and also eventual pre-med studies of zoology and biology in college. (Douglas College, the all-women’s division of Rutgers at the time did not have a proper pre-med program and she tells me that one took a dual major to achieve the closest possible coursework.) In retrospect it wasn’t glorious by some of today’s standards (I have been in homes and offices where amazing tanks take up whole walls, maintained frequently by visiting professionals), but ours had a variety of fish with live plants which fascinated us kids and our then cats alike. (Zipper was very fond of it and liked to “pat” the fish on the glass but never reaching in; Snoopy, a very dignified cat paid it less attention. If kitten Pumpkin had an opinion I do not remember.) Like most children, we’d started with goldfish won at fairs and the like, which had sadly abbreviated lives and I guess mom figured if we were going to do it we would do it right.
Even such a fish tank at the level of ours takes a considerable amount of care and in hindsight I am a bit amazed that my mother took it on knowing what it required. Periodically the fish had to be removed and the tank and any objects (I believe there was a sea chest with treasure in it) carefully cleaned in a way and with substances that would not harm them. Then fresh water had to be prepared, the tank and plants re-installed before the fish could be returned. All of this under the watchful eyes of three small children, as many cats and a German Shepard – most likely while my father was off at work or doing something else. I remember her explaining to me that saltwater tanks were even more complicated and that she had one when she was a little girl.
Nonetheless, mom ran a pretty tight ship on the fish tank and it is a glowing memory of my childhood. Neon tetras (which can be seen in my phone video below made at Petco the other day) made up the rank and file citizens of our tank and their winking color brings me right back to being about eight years old and staring at our tank, sometimes with Zipper in my lap, so he could have his polite look.
I’m not sure I remember all of the denizens of our tank but I know we also had a few Zebra fish, some guppies and some tiny shark variety of critter. (Internet swipes stolen below.) There were also snails and a catfish sort of guy to help keep it all clean. (I liked his “whiskers” and he was a favorite to watch, often attached to the side of the tank so I could see his tummy.) Lastly, something we called an Angel fish, but I cannot really find its likes online. Our track record with keeping them all alive wasn’t entirely unblemished – I do remember a few fish funerals held at the toilet of the coincidently well located, nearby bathroom. However, in retrospect and reading even a little about it online today I realize that ours was generally a well kept and happily balanced fish tank and that even as a small child I had a sense of how fragile that ecosystem was.
This lesson was dramatically brought home to us by the acquisition of a Kissing Gourami. Now, to mom’s credit, even online right now you will be told that this is a non-aggressive division of the species compatible with smaller fish in a tank – much like the tale of the fighting fish outlined above. Sadly, we were not to find this to be the case. This little fellow, bully that he was, began systematically eating his way through all the other fish! It wasn’t so dramatic that we realized it right away, but nevertheless it quickly became apparent – and what to do?
As hateful as this was none of us quite had the stomach to kill him outright, but of course we could not allow him to slaughter every other fish. Luckily someone my father worked with had a much larger tank (where our Gourami would not be the biggest guy on the block) and he was packed off to live with Jack Gray’s fish, leaving us to wonder how he fared matriculating in that larger milieu. (The Buddhists have a saying, big fish eat little fish and I reflect on that often. A favorite illustration of that -from the Met of course! – below.)
Big Fish Eat Little Fish, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Metropolitan Museum of Art collection
I do not remember the ultimate demise of our fish tank. I know it did not make the move to our next house when I was about 12. I assume it petered out – for which my mother was likely grateful.
After our adventure looking at fish, we had a quick tour of lizards before leaving. Generally speaking I have an okay relationship with lizards. It is a step up from rodents, for whom I wish a happy existence however I generally like to keep at arm’s length, but below furry critters who I pretty much universally want to get to know. Gecko’s proved endearing when traveling through Nepal where they ate the mammoth cockroaches in the hotels, “barking” all the while. I have a vague memory of my brother asking for a lizard and my mother saying she just couldn’t do it because all she could see was the day that she found one of our cats with a lizard tail hanging out its mouth.
I’ve always been particularly interested in chameleons. This little fellow, shown at the top of this post and below, took a real liking to me yesterday and he stood and waved at me for what seemed to be an extraordinary length of time. For all the world he did seem to be appealing to me to please take him home and I was tempted to heed his call. With Betty’s long ago words about cats and chameleon’s sadly I could not however really consider it.