Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Fish as a Community Model

I think that anyone who has ever owned a pet will attest to the unexpected intelligence and acts of emotion you get from them. These acts can make you laugh or touch your heart; whether it's the protective dog or the cat who will nuzzle with you just when you need it the most, there's no doubting that pets have that capacity build into them innately.

Steve and I have a 90 gallon aquarium (anything that large no longer qualifies as a standard "tank") that at some point in time we think we would like to not have anymore (it's a bit cumbersome to manage - cleaning it is an afternoon endeavor, never mind it's an extra piece of furniture). In the meantime - there are still fish that live in it so we feed them, clean the tank, and just watch them live in their little community. When Steve originally got the tank 6 years ago, it was home to Jag, Tex, Cat, Mouthful, Mom, and baby Domino (I might be missing one, but I'm not sure).

Domino grew up and he & Mom had several litters of babies themselves. Watching them parent was a really cool thing; they would make sure their babies stayed herded together and work to save them from certain death by being eaten by the other fish or burying themselves in the rocks. While Mom would gather food and chew/spit it out so the babies could eat, Domino would protect the babies by warding off the other fish when they would get too close. Out of at least 3 litters of babies, we did have one survivor for a time who we named Genie. Genie died after we moved to our current apartment; the move spooked the other fish and one of the larger fish (we presume Jag) ate him.

 Domino, Mom, & Babies

Over time, the tank whittled down to just Jag, Mom, and a new addition Spunky. Spunky started out as a bit of a misnomer; when we first got him, he would just hang out in one corner of the tank and not do a thing. He wouldn't even swim to the top for food because he was afraid of Mom & Jag. Then one day, Spunky lived up to his name and started trying to play... with Jag. Jag is our big old curmudgeon in the tank; he's very much the "Get off my lawn" old man fish. When Spunky would come over to Jag's little hole and try to play... needless to say, Jag did not like that at all.

Well... fish or human, when you live together for a while you become family.

Mom is the oldest of our fish, hands down. These fish have a standard lifespan of about 5-6 years; she's 7. She's had a lot of babies, which makes her very tired for a fish. Saturday night when I went to feed them, I noticed she was not floating about horizontal; she was floating on a diagonal. I pointed it out to Steve, who reminded me that she's old and probably on her last legs (or fins... whatever). Later that night as we were heading to bed, I noticed that she was swimming about the tank. Because of how she'd been recently - kind of "quiet" and in her little hole - I took pause to watch what she was up to and called Steve over to watch too. She swam past Jag, who came out of his hole and nuzzled against her side. She swam to the top and nibbled at a stray piece of food; Jag stayed at her side the entire time. As she went back to her hole with Jag right behind her, Spunky took notice of what was going on. Before long, Mom was back to her spot and Jag (who never leaves his old man house) and Spunky (who, while full of energy during the day, is usually super still at night) were on either side of her.

We stood amazed at the love these three fish have for each other.

Jag & Spunky at Mom's side - 2/13/10 

When we woke up in the morning, Jag & Spunky had returned to their normal spots... and we noticed that Mom was passed away; gently laid on a fallen filter piece in the back of the tank*. Steve reached in to remove her from the tank, and Jag & Spunky came out and just watched him. This was unique because the net usually spooks them back to their spots, but they literally just floated there watching as he removed Mom from the tank. Their behavior was not the same for a couple of days; the most touching moment of the morning was when Steve tried to offer them food... because he copes by stress eating, he thought the fish might want a snack.

It has been amazing with this aquarium over the last few years to watch as God's creatures live, love, play, and mourn. Anyone who thinks that fish are mostly just for show should set up a community tank and observe as they form that community and support one another - til death do they part, with unconditional love.

*No matter how many times we put it back on, Spunky takes it off and puts it there. We've given up; clearly that's where he wants it.

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