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The Goldfish Were an Accident May 23, 2013

The goldfish were an accident. They weren’t the plan, just the beginning of the plan. Originally, my intent had been to use them as an aquarium “starter pet”. I had kept 10 cent feeder fish as a child and, with a life-span of a few months, they seemed the perfect candidates for establishing my reputation as an aquarist. In three months, I’d have made most of the mistakes a new fish keeper can make and, armed with this knowledge, would move on to brighter tropical fish and, eventually, to the holy grail: a saltwater tank.

The fish, however, had a different plan. Using a common calculation (1” of fish to every gallon of water), I was able to determine that my five gallon fish tank could easily sustain five 1” Lionhead Goldfish. These were fancier than the feeder fish and would give me greater enjoyment during the coming months. If you’ve ever heard the old wives tale that a fish won’t grow bigger than its bowl, you’re about to learn otherwise. My dedication to my piscine friends led to rapid growth and it wasn’t long before I was replacing their five gallon tank with a ten. It was in this aquarium that two of my fishy friends eventually met their demise… but not without what proved to be an unusually long run of several years! Three fish remained and, having now recognized that my goldfish (whose names had been changed multiple times to reflect everything from my love of “Lord of the Rings” to my fascination with Israeli history) I began to apply myself quite seriously to the art of goldfish keeping.

I admit to having been less than satisfied with most of the books available at the pet store. These were clearly written with the average six year old with a few feeder fish in mind, but I was looking for something more… adult. It wasn’t long until I had found it: “Fancy Goldfish: Complete Guide To Care And Collecting” by Dr. Erik L. Johnson, D.V.M. and Richard E. Hess. The volume was a goldmine! From the history of the goldfish’s development and criteria for collecting and showing to tips on trouble-shooting aquarium problems and even performing a necropsy on a dead goldfish, it had the very scientific approach for which I had been searching. I read the book cover-to-cover and over the following months was able to make good use of nearly every tip or trick it contained… even to the point of saving one of my fish’s lives!

It had been a long day at work when I returned home to find Golda (named for the inimitable Golda Maier) sitting at the bottom of the aquarium with her fins clamped firmly to her sides, her gills barely fluttering. I tapped the tank, but received no response and, crouching down to look her in the eye, realized that she had swallowed a rather sizeable rock. (I had taken care to select gravel too large for my fish to ingest, but apparently nothing is really too large for a reasonably determined goldfish.) It instantly became apparent that the only way to restore Golda’s ability to breathe would be to remove the rock myself. And for this, I turned rather frantically to Dr. Johnson. Buried amidst the pages of his volume were succinct instructions for anesthetizing a goldfish.

I admit that I approached the task a bit nervously. After all, Dr. Johnson was clear that the overuse of the oil of cloves which I had purchased for my medicine cabinet months earlier could lead to euthanasia rather than sedation. And I certainly didn’t want to kill poor Golda! Not after all she’d been through. Five drops (no more) were placed in a small quarantine tank along with water from the aquarium. Stirring the solution carefully, I netted my baby (now almost as big as my hand), placed her inside, and watched the clock.

I felt like a surgeon: monitoring vital signs, waiting, watching, hoping not to leave her too long, but knowing that if I didn’t allow her to become sedate enough, I risked doing serious harm when I tried to maneuver the rock out of her airway. Certain that she was ready, I removed her to another container filled with fresh water and gripped her firmly in my left hand as I inserted my tweezers into her oversized mouth.

That she was cognizant of the process was obvious, but she struggled very little and, within a few minutes, I had removed the bolder and returned her to a recovery tank. Over the next hour or so, she slowly returned to normal and was eventually returned to the aquarium.

Years have passed. My three remaining Lionheads are now eleven years old (a well-cared-for goldfish can live as long as 25 years) and make their home in a twenty-five gallon tank. The size of baseballs (and one nearly the same shape), they bob peacefully, lining up at the bottom of the aquarium to stare at me as I write. Even Golda, who has never been quite the same, seems to smile as I type. “The Eyeballs” as I call them now, have become a fixture in my life. A peaceful reminder that sometimes a beginning becomes an end and that not all projects turn out quite as we expect… but that often those twists lead us onward to something even better!

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