About a month ago, I was surprised by the response to a post I wrote about my Big Dead Goldfish Dilemma. My extra-large goldfish, Princess, had died very suddenly late last year, and unable to decide what to do with the body, I put her in my kitchen freezer.
I got a range of suggestions from concerned readers in the comments and via social media. They said I could fling Princess into the ocean, cremate her, feed her to a cat, or take her to the woods, cover her body with rocks, pray and burn some sage. I appreciated every response.
But one answer in particular caught my eye. My neighborhood pal Michaelann, who lives just a few blocks away, said I should bury the fish in her garden. I don’t know if Michaelann was serious, but after thinking it over for a few weeks, I messaged her.
Jerome and Michaelann in their front yard farm.
And so, on a warm Saturday afternoon in early March, I wrapped Princess in a towel and strolled up the street, where Michaelann and her partner Jerome were waiting.
With an extensive garden, a beehive and a chicken coop, Jerome and Michaelann are serious about urban farming (check out Michaelann’s blog, Elkins Park Front Yard Farm). I met them last year, when I was working on a magazine story about backyard bee- and chicken-keeping.
When I arrived, there was already a foot-deep hole waiting, cushioned with straw.
Michaelann explained that it was the perfect place for the burial: this spring, the grave will be the site of a Native American-style Three Sisters Garden.
A Three Sisters Garden is a trio of corn, beans and squash all in one hill of soil. The beans add necessary nitrogen to the soil while using the cornstalk as a pole, and the squash’s leaves shade the ground, preventing too many weeds and naturally deterring pests. And apparently, Native Americans of the Atlantic Northeast buried an eel or a fish under each hill, to help fertilize the plants.
I unwrapped Princess and laid her in the hole.
Michaelann covered the orange scales with another handful of straw, to ensure successful composting, and we pushed the dirt back in with our hands.
The grave left a small mound, which we covered with straw and then a weighted screen, to deter digging animals.
I wiped my hands on a towel and we stood around the grave.
“You were a good fish, Princess,” I said.
Jerome asked if we shouldn’t have some kind of song.
We fell silent for a moment, wondering if there were any hymns about fish.
“Fish heads, fish heads, roly-poly fish heads…” Michaelann murmured at last.
It is as if Coca-Cola decided it wanted to begin putting its aspartame-sweetened Diet Coke and its corn syrup-sweetened Coke in identical cans – all in the name of helping their customers.
From the petition:
“Petitioners state that milk flavored with non-nutritive sweeteners [like aspartame] should be labeled as milk without further claims so that consumers can more easily identify its overall nutritional value.”
In other words, the less you know about what’s really in your food, the better you’ll be able to make good choices about what to eat.
You have until May 21st, 2013 to visit the public petition online and register your comment about the proposed change to the “Standard Identity” of milk.
She cost just a few cents when I bought her – a tiny orange dart. My youngest sister-in-law, whose own middle name is Princess, became especially fond of the fish and named it after herself.
Princess (on the right in the blog header photo) grew quickly. She outgrew all my nets. At about a foot in length, she was the size of a hearty lake trout. We fried smaller fish for dinner when we went surf fishing on the Jersey shore. When I leaned over the tank to feed her and her companions, she splashed my face like a cheeky dolphin.
Princess in her younger days.
About two years ago, she was partially responsible for what I called the spawning of a new era, and I have been parenting her fry ever since.
She was the biggest, fastest, greediest fish in the tank – until one day last fall, when she suddenly seemed a little lethargic. The next day, she wasn’t interested in her food. I wasn’t too worried, having nursed her through a couple ailments in the past, including a quick bout of ick and some fin and tail rot. I added a natural antibacterial remedy to the tank.
The next morning, she was dead.
In all my years of fish-keeping, I’ve never seen a fish go down so fast. Princess should have lived many more years. I have no idea what she had, but whatever it was, it didn’t seem to affect any of the other fish.
I’m not immune to grief over my goldfish, who usually survive a couple years at least (my two oldest have been with me since college). All pets, however small, should be a genuine commitment, and I hate to lose them.
In the past, when my own fish have floated, I’ve made do with a quick flush, a tender wrapping and a trip to the dumpster, or a hasty burial, all with a fond word of farewell.
But I never lost a fish as large as Princess before.
As a practical matter, flushing was totally out of the question. And such was my fondness for Princess that I couldn’t countenance tossing her in the trash. But burial posed its own problems. We live in an apartment complex and have no front yard to speak of – just a concrete porch, parking lot, sidewalk and street.
I could have installed Princess in a large shoebox and taken her to the public park across the road – but what would the neighbors think, if they saw me digging a hole in the grass big enough to lay Princess to rest? I don’t even own a shovel.
And what if a passing Labrador retriever took too keen an interest?
Mom said next time I visit, I can haul the body across state lines and bury it in my parents’ yard. But my preference for travel by train is a problem. I doubt Amtrak counts a medium-size dead fish among approved luggage items.
To complicate matters, my sister-in-law, who was out of the country at the time of Princess’s demise, also grieved the fish and asked us not to dispose of the body until she could pay her respects.
Finally, in a textbook failure to cope with the situation, I put the poor fish in a gallon-sized plastic Ziploc bag and stashed her on the door of our freezer, next to a bag of sweet corn and an ice pack for my plantar fasciitis.
And there Princess remains, still eyeing me reproachfully every time I reach for some French-cut beans or a Popsicle.
If ever there was a first-world problem, it’s what to do with an oversized dead goldfish. But that doesn’t make me feel any better. So I’m taking to the blog.
How much would you spend to cure your pet fish? (Photo from PBS.org.)
No, this blog is not ordinarily about fish, but this conversation with a pioneering vet was just too good to pass up! A must-read for anyone who loves their aquarium fish a little bit more than they’d like to admit.
Dr. Greg Lewbart, a North Carolina State University professor of aquatic, wildlife, and zoologic medicine, is a South Jersey Native, alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, author, and faculty advisor of the NCSU-CVM Turtle Rescue Team. As you can see in this short NOVA video, Dr. Lewbart has helped to invent the science of surgery on pet fish. I caught up with this James Herriot of the seas by phone in August, just after he’d returned from catching 115 pounds of halibut fillets on an Alaskan fishing vacation. Here are excerpts of our conversation.
Dr. Greg Lewbart (courtesy of Greglewbart.com)
Alaina Mabaso: The first question is: do you see the irony of being a veterinarian for fish, and then going on a fishing trip for your vacation?
Dr. Lewbart: Exactly! I know, interesting, huh? Here’s the way I paint the picture. If you bring me your goldfish and it has a lump on it, our standard protocol would be to anesthetize the fish, probably apply a local anesthetic like Lidocaine, then take the biopsy, and then depending on our assessment of how much trauma was involved, we’d probably give the fish a post-operative [painkiller]. And then we’d send the fish home and have the owner monitor it.
The fish I’m catching, they’re not getting any pain medication…[and] there’s no doubt in my mind that these hooks are inflicting discomfort on the animal, despite some fishermen’s self-serving opinion that fish don’t feel pain. That’s crazy. And it’s ignorant. I’m a fisherman, and I’d love it if someone told me, not only does the fish not feel pain, but the hook [causes] some kind of an endorphin release. I don’t believe it…If I put a needle into a fish to take a blood sample, it flops…So whether it’s pain like when we stub our toe or burn our finger, I don’t know. But it’s certainly a noxious stimulus. It’s something they don’t like.
AM: How did you get into your career? Have you always been interested in aquatic animals?
Dr. L: I wanted to be a vet since I was a little boy. I grew up in South Jersey, went to college at Gettysburg College of Pennsylvania, and I struggled a bit…especially with the sciences. But I survived, and senior year I had this wonderful course called Invertebrate Zoology, and it really kind of changed my life. I loved the subject matter (a lot of it was marine-biology related), and I found myself doing really well for the first time in my college career. We went to Bermuda for a marine biology class my senior year, and that sealed it for me that, wow, I still wanted to be a vet, but could I be a vet for these animals that live in the ocean?
I applied to a graduate program at Northeastern University in Boston and did a Master’s in Biology, with an emphasis in marine biology.
I finally did get into vet school…and 98% of what you learn in vet school is dogs, cats, horses, cows, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens…So I took a job in a pet store in West Philly when I was a second-year vet student, so I could learn about fish, because I saw fish as being aquatic animals that I could get my hands on. I could go the pet store and get a sick guppy and bring it back to the vet school, and look at it under the microscope. You couldn’t do that with Shamu or Flipper.
And then the wholesaler of tropical fish that supplied the pet store found out there was vet student that was interested in diagnostics. He offered me a job my senior year of vet school…I was in the trenches, cutting up fish and looking through books. And when North Carolina State was looking for a fish clinician twenty years ago, I got the offer for the position, and I’ve been there ever since.
AM: So talk about some of the advances you’ve developed in those 20 years.
Dr. L: I think what I’ve done more than anything is to be a facilitator. I work with a lot of really talented, smart people…Like in the Nova video: there we are, we’ve got a fish under anesthesia, and I’ve got a colleague, who’s a [horse] surgeon, doing laser surgery on a fish. If I wasn’t there to introduce him to fish and get him involved, he probably wouldn’t have done fish surgery. What he can do is bring expertise and techniques to animals that I’m familiar with.
At North Carolina State, we really did pioneer surgery for pet fish. We published [what is probably] the first abdominal [pet fish] surgery: we opened up a fish, took something out of it, closed it up, and it lived. We’ve done a lot of work studying what sutures work for fish, anesthetic protocols, and pain management in fish. We’re not the only people doing it – people around the world are doing it – but I think we’re recognized as a leader in that area.
AM: Especially to lay people, the thing that’s so fascinating is looking at the video and seeing the contraption that has the tube going into the fish’s mouth that has the water and the anesthetic that keeps it alive and asleep. Talk a bit about developing that.
Dr. L: It’s a pump that pumps water and re-circulates it. I’m looking out my back window at a birdbath, and it’s the same system. So how did we apply something like that to a fish? Well, I gave a talk in February of 1993 to an aquarium society in Raleigh, just general fish medicine. And I had done some anesthesia with fish, but not a re-circulating system: maybe a turkey baster or a syringe, just to keep that anesthetic over the gills. So this [fish] owner came to me and said, “I have this fish, I’m really attached to him, and it’s got a buoyancy problem. Can you help?”
So we worked it up, and it looked like it had a swim bladder that was too big, and needed to be operated on. We needed a machine to do that, so I concocted this thing with the help of people at the vet school, with a pump and a couple tanks and a platform. It was cumbersome, but it worked, and the fish lived.
My students then devised a much more sophisticated machine with bells and whistles and knobs and valves and all that. [After a few more generations and collaborations to make the device more affordable, compact and portable], we called it the FAD: the fish anesthesia delivery system.
AM: I heard that your burgeoning specialty is cancer in fish.
Dr. L: We actually have an oncologist who gave chemo to a goldfish many years ago. I’m board-certified in zoo medicine with an emphasis in aquatics. But a lot of the surgery we do is cancer-related.
AM: So cancer is a common thing for fish?
Dr. L: I would say it’s fairly common for older fish, especially goldfish and koi. They live long enough and they seem to get tumors – some of them are malignant and some of them aren’t. A lot of fish, to step away from pet fish, are exposed to pollution and other environmental contaminants, and end up with tumors. That’s well-established in the literature.
AM: So does diagnosing and treating cancer in fish have the possibility of new knowledge that could be applied to other species or even us?
Dr. L: Absolutely…There’s a lot of work being done in tumors and cancer of fish that could be applicable to humans, and other animals too. Oncology in veterinary medicine is a big field.
AM: What’s the attitude toward your specialty from the veterinary field at large? Do they see what you’re doing as the inevitable way of the future, or are most people confused by that specialization with aquatic animals and fish?
Dr. L: I think it’s a mixed bag. I think that there was a time where we were sort of looked at as quirky: oh wow, a fish vet? And colleagues and friends still say, why do surgery on a fish? But that’s trickling away now, and aquatic general medicine is an accepted and respected discipline in veterinary medicine.
[Veterinary medicine] has changed in interesting ways over hundreds of years. It started out as an equine profession to support military horses in the 1700s and 1800s, and that morphed over to food animal work in the early part of the 20th century, when the automobiles took over.
One hundred years ago, it was hard to learn about dogs in vet school. Now it’s a profession that’s about 70% small animals, 20% large animals, and 10% everything else.
AM: So in these days of the rabid 99% in America, I can hear what some people might say about this: for God’s sake why would you pay for surgery on a fish when you could just buy a new one for fifty cents?
Fish of the One Percent.
Dr. L: I would say that many people’s cats and dogs, they got for free. I found my dog in the median about nine years ago. He was a wreck: he weighed 44 pounds (now he weighs 65), he had a dislocated hip, a fractured hip, heartworms, and ground-down teeth. I don’t know what happened to him. Even veterinarians still have to pay veterinary bills: he had surgery to fix his hip, he had heartworm treatment, he had a root canal, and over the years we’ve spent thousands of dollars on him. [We got him for] free – while someone spends a dollar on a goldfish.
I’m not trying to compare a goldfish to a dog, although I have clients that are really, sincerely, passionately, emotionally attached to their fish. Especially goldfish! And they will spend hundreds of dollars or whatever it takes. So here’s my answer. I don’t judge my clients by the species or the origin of the animal. If they say, “my pet is sick,” I say, “let’s see how we can help.” That’s people’s prerogative. If they want to spend money on their pet, whatever pet it is, then they should be able to.
AM: I read a statistic once about aquarium keeping in the US, and it said that 90% of all fish destined for home aquariums end up dying – not a natural death, but that they get ill and die.
Dr. L: I would say yes, that’s true, [though] it’s a really hard thing to study. I heard an estimate once that only 25% of fish live [past] 30 days in a home aquarium. People ask, “how long does a koi live?” And I say, [if you average the lives of all the koi that are purchased], “about six months.”
Picture from Koiacres.com
I know of some thirty-five-year-old koi. I’ve treated fish in their 20s, [but] it’s rare. Bad stuff happens to good fish…Even when professionals take care of an aquarium, stuff happens and they’re very vulnerable. Unlike air-breathing animals, [fish] have nowhere to go. In twenty years in North Carolina, I’ve seen three hurricanes, a tornado, ice storms and power outages [which can prove fatal to aquarium fish]…It’s horrible, but something like that is going to happen.
We know some fish species in the wild can live a hundred years: rockfish, sturgeon. I saw a tarpon at the Shedd Aquarium that was seventy. So they can live that long, it’s just that they’re very susceptible to environmental changes that are out of [aquarium keepers’] control.
AM: I’ve had my goldfish for seven or eight years, and people are like, what? I didn’t know goldfish could live that long.
Dr. L: Well, they can live 30 or 40 years.
AM: So it’s quite a commitment, if you care for them properly. It seems like maybe you’re doing something important in that you’re helping us view all animals as worthy of our care and attention, even if they’re not the animals that we most easily relate to.
Dr. L: I agree!
AM: So is there anything that writers never ask you, but that you think is really important for people to know?
Dr. L: The number-one problem I see is that people go to the pet store, they see a fish they like, they buy it, it looks healthy, they put it in their aquarium, and then their other fish get sick. The best thing you can do is isolate new fish, observe them for a month, and make sure they’re not bringing anything home from the pet store.
Number two would be don’t release any exotic animal into the wild. And don’t impulsively buy or obtain animals that you might not be able to care for down the line.
There may not be a fish vet in your town or county, but one thing we do is help find fish veterinarians for people all over the country, so they’re out there. Most states have them. And we’ll consult with veterinarians who aren’t as fish-experienced, so we can work together on a project. Veterinary medicine is here to support all animals. It goes beyond dogs and cats.
AM: Thanks so much for taking all this time to talk with us.
Java and Dexter, my aunt and uncle’s dogs, an excitable cocker spaniel/poodle mix and a trembling, devoted Jack Russell Terrier, trained their gaze on my uncle with the focus of weapons guidance systems.
He was making himself a bowl of sliced strawberries.
“I wonder why they think they want strawberries,” I said.
“Now, see, the problem right there is that you’re assuming they think at all,” my uncle replied. Though he loves his dogs, he apparently doesn’t set a great store by canine intelligence.
But my uncle is wrong.
Of course I’m not the first person to allege that dogs can think. One of my favorite books as a kid was a paperback about dog heroes: dogs defended their families from poisonous snakes, woke up sleeping parents in the face of fire, and dragged their injured humans from freezing lakes and gravel pits.
Or take the story circulating the internet this week: a mother dog pulls her 10-day-old puppies from a house-fire, and piles them right into a nearby fire-truck.
Are these not the actions of a clever species? This is not to mention the work of service dogs, military dogs, cancer and bomb and drug-sniffing dogs, dogs that herd your livestock and dogs that comfort you when you cry.
Currently occupying the admittedly subjective title of smartest dog of all time is Cuda, my mom’s buff-colored 11-year-old cocker spaniel/miniature poodle mix.
Here is a dog who knows how to have fun. (Photo credit Johanna Austin.)
He showed his smarts early on by learning to leap onto the back of the couch and touch his nose to my dad’s buck trophy on the living room wall when someone asks “where’s the deer?”
There it is!!
Later, he expanded his repertoire to running to the goldfish tank when someone asks “where’s the fishies?”
But one night he blew it all out of the water.
My mom was home alone late at night, and Cuda began to bark frantically at the front door. Mom peeked out the windows and could see nothing, but Cuda wouldn’t calm down. Finally, unbidden, he leapt to touch the deer trophy.
What was he trying to say?
Mom looked outside again, and on her second try, she discovered a herd of deer crossing the driveway.
To Mom, the episode settled a long-running dispute we’ve had about the depth of Cuda’s smarts – I maintained that he has no idea what a “deer” is and had merely responded over time to positive reinforcement when he approached the trophy. Now, Mom can claim that Cuda’s mental abilities extend to the communication of fully-formed abstract reasoning.
Deer are trespassing outside. Mommy doesn’t know they’re there. There is a deer right there on the wall. Since I am unable to alert her to the presence of deer outside through noisemaking alone, I will point to the inside deer to represent the deer that are outside.
Occasionally I take up my case again to assert that Cuda’s running to the deer was not a demonstration of his vocabulary, but a reflex: excited by the encroaching animals, he spontaneously performed a behavior that he does at other times of high excitement – i.e., when humans are looking at him and talking to him in enthusiastic voices.
My own childhood dog, while devoted to me, was not renowned for her smarts. This golden retriever spent one hectic snow-day afternoon barking in terror at the snowman my brother and I built in the front yard. On another notable occasion, in one go, Sandy managed to poop on every one of the fourteen carpeted steps between the first and second floor.
A malamute my parents owned when I was a toddler had a propensity for eating copious amounts of sand, resulting in an explosive trip to the vet that has become the kind of family lore polite mothers hate.
But the truth is that I know dogs are smart. Very smart. And the proof isn’t the stuff of heartwarming tales.
It’s the lies.
We often point out the ways dogs mirror our best human qualities – their apparent empathy and loyalty – while forgetting that we can also discern the worst of us in our canine companions. To me, their wily, sneaking lies are the strongest proof of their intelligence.
My former boss had a little dog that disliked going outside. Every time my boss shooed her out onto the grass, she took to relieving herself very quickly.
Or did she?
After awhile, my boss realized that her dog was not, in fact, relieving herself outside. As long as her human was watching, the little dog discovered that she did not have to urinate before running back inside. She just had to squat long enough to fool the human.
My boss watched weeks of these crafty dry squats before realizing what was going on.
My own snowman-hating Sandy was not as smart as Kallie, the Labrador retriever who preceded her.
My parents rarely argue. But I remember one frustrating week when I was in grade school. Each night, Mom would ask Dad to PLEASE remember to shut the door all the way when he left for work early in the morning. Dad would counter that of course he was shutting the door. Mom would point out that for the last few days, she had discovered the front door slightly ajar and Kallie out flouting the county leash laws.
What my parents failed to take into account was the recent installation of a new doorknob.
They had replaced this kind of doorknob:
Kallie had realized that if she waited until after Dad left but before the rest of the family was up, she could open the front door with her paw.
So, near as I can tell, the dog
1) Observed the mechanical function of the door.
2) Mastered that function herself.
3) Realized the function must only be performed in secret.
But it was the Rhodesian Ridgeback, Briggs, the family dog in my teens, who forever sealed my confidence in dogs’ intelligence.
Briggs was the kind of dog who was difficult to train not because he couldn’t understand our commands. If you said sit, he was the kind of dog who would look at you and think
He was known for knocking the lid of his dog food storage bucket off to enjoy illicit snacks in the kitchen throughout the day. Once, when I was home alone and the house was particularly quiet, I heard the crunching from my seat in the living room and got up to banish him from the kitchen.
A long period of silence followed. Too much silence.
I snuck to the kitchen and peered around the corner unobserved.
Briggs was indeed back in the food bin. But this time, he took a mouthful of food and walked into the adjacent bathroom. From my hiding place, I discerned a faint crunching. I watched, astonished, as he returned for another mouthful and took it into the bathroom.
Dog-lovers buy pillows embroidered with the phrase, “My goal in life is to be the kind of person my dog thinks I am.”
Newsflash. Here’s what your dog really thinks of you: you’re eminently fallible and totally gullible. And he’s right.
Before I caught Briggs in the bathroom that day, I assumed his thought process, upon being discovered with his nose in the bucket, was (albeit not in linguistic terms) something along the lines of
I’m not allowed to eat out of the bucket.
In reality, he was thinking
It was the crunching that tipped her off.
In light of all this, who knows why my canine cousins took time from their busy schedule of licking, barking, and couch encroachments to stare pointedly at a man slicing strawberries. But I do know one thing.
Oh yes. Dogs think.
For more proof, you can check out this video of Cuda in which he miraculously picks his own Christmas stocking out of the full family line-up.
Has a dog ever surprised you with its smarts? Or its lies?
In case you missed the stink in the press last month, a couple of British scientists who can’t discuss their findings at dinner have the beginnings of a new theory on why the dinosaurs died out.
They all had gas.
The original study appeared recently in the journal Current Biology, and it was conducted by researchers Dave Wilkinson of Liverpool John Moores University, Graeme Ruxton of the University of St. Andrews, and Euan Nisbet at the University of London.
Myriad media outlets picked up the story, hurrying through the facts in favor of exhausting 65 million years’ worth of flatulence-related quips.
Oh, how I wish there was fossilized evidence of farts. The study actually has almost nothing to do with paleontology, except for the fact that it’s making conjectures about an extinct ecosystem. Uber-scientific calculations guess how much gas the dinosaurs collectively blasted by formulas based on the modern cow’s output, applied to the size, diet and projected populations of herbivorous dinosaurs.
Here’s the deal.
As large-ish vegetation eaters, modern cows and their brethren are toot machines, contributing a significant amount of methane to the air surrounding this little globe of ours.
Methane traps heat in our atmosphere far more than carbon dioxide does.
If cows are methane machines, imagine how much gas the average Apatosaurus passed.
Back in the Jurassic, the world was warming up.
The dinosaurs died out, possibly because of a warming climate.
Ergo, unbridled farting, and not a catastrophic meteorite, may have snuffed out the dinosaurs.
Unfortunately, since this study hit the media, fresh jokes about death by farting have gone extinct and excavating any of them is not the point of this blog post.
Self-appointed experts, commenting on these stories online, have of course dragged a range of tangential discourse to light, including arguments over the difference between a meteor and a meteorite, whether or not we should compare cows to dinosaurs, the validity of the term “brontosaurus”, creationism, and whether or not global warming is a hoax generated by liberals.
But I would like to extend our meditations here still further. Specifically, if excessive sauropod farts did, in fact, prove fatal to those majestic reptiles, what other mysteries might we solve with the help of the dino fart hypothesis?
Perhaps, lucky for us, early extraterrestrial visitors found the atmosphere intolerable.
Or perhaps it was the danger of the seas, and not the allure of the land, that first brought earth’s creatures to the shore.
Would you want to stay in the ocean if the plesiosaurs were turning it into one giant Jacuzzi?
Here, I’m compelled to add that during a family vacation in Florida when I was a child, I crossed a bridge in an animal park with my dad. We were delighted to spot a mountainous gray manatee cruising just below us, and ecstatic when it honored us with an unmistakable burst of bubbles.
Perhaps, given the revelations of this latest dinosaur study, it would behoove Nessie enthusiasts to look out for mysterious gouts of bubbles in the Loch.
What other mysteries can dino fart theories help us solve?
The following image, snapped and stored in my phone, has haunted me for almost two years.
Some well-meaning designer of signage at the take-out breakfast and lunch chain known as Au Bon Pain, contrary to the restaurant’s intentions, has seriously dampened my craving for chicken salad. And I love chicken salad.
There is so much wrong with this sandwich board.
First, it violates my personal objections to restaurant logos that cheesily anthropomorphize the food they serve. For example, if you specialize in seafood, don’t have a cartoon of a grinning, waving crab on your signage. The crabs aren’t happy about being eaten; pretending otherwise doesn’t make me more likely to eat at your restaurant.
Not helping my appetite, Dixie Crossroads Seafood Restaurant.
Second, for unknown reasons I’ve always been bothered by the artistic license that turns birds’ wing-feathers into hands.
But worst of all, I’m assuming that the marketers of Au Bon Pain want me to purchase their chicken salad based on the endorsement of a giant molting chicken who, with evident relish, is about to eat a sandwich made of its own flesh.
I think it’s Easter morning when I was around five years old.
What would a little girl like me have to be unhappy about that morning? I was off to Easter church with my brother, parents and probably my grandparents, seeing as someone else was there that morning, taking the photo. I had long, gorgeous blond hair, a handful of daffodils, and I had probably just opened an Easter basket of epic proportions.
But I hated my dress.
A “sailor dress”, the grown-ups called it. I liked riding with my family in my grandfather’s sailboat.
Good times, even though we were forced to wear life jackets that looked almost as bad as the dress.
But I did not want to dress like a sailor. Large, flat navy-blue panels over my shoulders, the shapeless cascade of white fabric! I couldn’t stand it from the minute Mom pulled it off the rack. Everyone else insisted that it was adorable.
Now that I am almost thirty, I can admit that everyone else was right.
I am not typically so slow to admit that my mother is right about a lot of things.
“Well, I would like to be asked before someone blogs about me,” she said recently, after I blogged about an unusually exciting trip to Applebee’s with her father.
She’s probably right.
But don’t moms like surprises on Mother’s Day?
There are many aspects of my upbringing that probably excelled other kids’, but I will always be especially fond of one of my mother’s qualities.
It was pretty well summed up on one of our family trips to the Jersey shore. I was a young teenager and my brother and I had just made our annual pilgrimage to the tackiest store on the North Atlantic coast, Surf Sundries. For reasons unknown I think we actually referred to it as Surf-n-Sundries. We had no idea what “sundries” meant. But that store, crammed with Styrofoam boogie boards, cheap plastic sandals, beach shovels and every lewd and tacky plastic figurine imaginable super-glued to seashells, was a summertime Mecca to us and our cousins.
One day, the cage of hermit crabs for sale caught my eye. My parents urged me to get a job at a young age, so I had my own spending money. I bought several crabs and all the necessary accoutrements.
On the way home, I felt a surge of affection for my mother – perhaps a first for teenage girls the world over. You might think that I hadn’t asked permission to buy the hairy, pinching crustaceans because my mother wouldn’t have let me do it if I had told her. But I didn’t ask because I knew she’d like them as much as I did.
That’s something I always appreciated about my mother – she loves the natural world and was never squeamish about any kind of creature.
When my brother and I were little, my parents went to some kind of party that featured mouse-races. The losing mice were destined to be fed to a pet python, but my parents decided to bring a pair of them home as a present for us.
Lucky and Pokey lived long mouse lives in a cage on our bureau. As I recall, we later acquired an obese white mouse named Earthquake, for his tendency to burrow messily in the bedding, heaving the cage floor into chaos.
I don’t know what the impetus was, but one day my parents brought my brother and me to a pet store, where we picked out a baby guinea pig. Perhaps influenced by Beatrix Potter, we named him Peter, but always called him Piggy.
The truth is that Dad didn’t realize how long a guinea pig could live. Piggy lived for about eight years, during which he made an art of banging his water bottle against the side of his tank and squealing like a smoke alarm. Of course, Mom was the one to clean his tank every week for all those years.
We had a cockatiel named Tyler for awhile, but ended up giving him to a friend, because he greeted every car in the driveway with earsplitting shrieks which always set off a round of frenzied barking by the dogs.
Another of my teenage pets included a ball python (ironic and not a little disturbing, considering my childhood love of mice), and one year, for my brother’s birthday, I bought him a bearded dragon lizard. Mom thought that was just as great as the hermit crabs years before.
My mother’s interest in animals extended to the wild creatures too. Every spring, we patiently endured weeks of furiously tweeting dive-bombs from the barn swallow warrior-parents who felt they owned our shed. She also volunteered at a local wild animal rehabilitation center.
When a nest of infant starlings was orphaned in our front yard, she took them in, setting them up in a cage we’d used years before for a pair of parakeets named Alex and Mallory. We fed them tenderly for weeks, and even after they’d taken wing and joined the wild birds gorging themselves on the mulberry tree at the end of the driveway, they’d return to her hands when she leaned out an upstairs window and called, “babies!”
One of her most memorable adoptions didn’t end well for the adoptee. She once trapped a highly poisonous Black Widow spider in a jar and kept it in the kitchen. We watched the spider spin a new web, spellbound by our proximity to nature’s danger. But when Mom realized later that week that our new pet had laid hundreds of Black Widow eggs, she bore the jar outside and rapidly put an end to the whole episode.
I suppose the risk of hundreds of Black Widows escaped in the household was the line between appreciating nature and getting out the bug spray. It’s a pretty good indicator of where Mom was on the bug-appreciation spectrum.
Our second-most interesting pet was also a spider.
My parents happened to see an apparently drowned tarantula floating in the pool during a tropical family vacation when my brother and I were young. They asked the man cleaning the pool to scoop it out, and when it surprised us by un-crumpling its long, brown, hairy legs, we trapped it in a large cheez-puff container, stuffed it deep into our luggage, and brought the spider home.
Years later I read that tarantulas carry no major diseases. This assuaged my guilt about lying to the customs officer on whether any animals were in our bags.
We fixed a beautiful terrarium for the spider and fed it a steady stream of fat black crickets. Perhaps it thought it had drowned and gone to heaven – until the cat discovered it one night and pushed its terrarium to the floor.
We grieved the spider.
As a kid, I appreciated the license I had to learn about the natural world, from spending entire afternoons peering under rocks in the backyard, to getting my own puppy at nine years old, to hatching a clutch of skink eggs I found in the mulch-pile.
Recently Mom proved her mettle yet again by adopting a pair of her great-grand goldfish, adding them to a tank of goldfish that were the centerpieces at my wedding and have survived from that day to this.
Now, I also think that growing up with a Mom who never said, “Yuck! Don’t bring that in here!!” carries a much bigger importance than the freedom every kid dreams about to bring creepy-crawlies home. It’s a large-minded example of enduring respect for the world, and an abiding curiosity about life that includes all creatures, which I still try to live by every day.
So, Mom, the bottom line is that I forgive you for the sailor dress. Happy Mother’s Day!
There are whole websites whose reason for being is photos of rabbits. Photos of cats and dogs have an endless range of character and shenanigans. But the most popular rabbit-devoted website I know of is called Disapproving Rabbits – effectively illustrating that as far as expression, personality and activities go, rabbits are one-note creatures. Their rodent brethren – rats, mice, squirrels – can be cheeky, amusing, disgusting, curious or even affectionate creatures, but I have never met a rabbit with the slightest bit of interest in a human. In my experience, rabbits do little but vibrate their noses, nibble, stare, drop poo pellets like a box of BBs with a hole in it, and hop away from you.
As a child, though I loved my Easter baskets, I never really entertained the idea of the Easter Bunny, and thank goodness for that, because there is something unpleasant about rabbits – something vaguely creepy about their beady, inscrutable eyes. If I had believed that there was a rabbit big enough to carry a basket and wily enough to get silently in and out of a locked house to bring me a chocolate version of himself, I would have been terrified.
Mom puts this fellow out every spring. There’s something sinister about him.
He’s not thinking good thoughts about us.
A man dressing up as Santa Claus? That’s ok. But a full-grown man in a full-body bunny costume? Not so much. Somehow Easter Bunny masks always have a fuzzy, manic gleam, with pointy, disproportionate ears oddly askew. As soon as a person puts on that grinning, buck-toothed, weird-eyed, furry white suit, something decidedly evil emanates.
Many of you have been following the story since my goldfish unexpectedly hatched a few hundred fry almost exactly a year ago. Here’s a visual finale of sorts.
I didn’t know it at the time, but on the day our goldfish fry hatched, my husband made a video. I didn’t know he was filming while I was on the phone to a singularly unhelpful aquarium store, whose staffer intimated that he might be willing to give me advice if I came into his store, but wasn’t interested in telling me anything over the phone.
Here, for the first time, are the fry at just a few hours old, while I, a concerned and ignorant fish mother, am antagonized by an unsympathetic world.
Once I assembled the right equipment, for the first month or so, my main problem was that parents kept spawning. If you ever wondered what goldfish eggs look like, here you go. You can actually see the tiny fish curled up inside. At that point they’re mostly eyeballs and a spine.
At one day old, goldfish fry mostly cling to the side of the tank. They look nothing like fish.
But they quickly left their infancy behind:
At this point I was reading a bunch of fish care books that said I should “cull” 99% of the fry. So I was pretty stressed out, given my reluctance to kill the babies (the books didn’t say how I should do it) and my simultaneous knowledge that I would NEVER be able to find that many homes for goldfish.
The illusion that the fish were my children was reinforced by products like the net breeder, which was basically an underwater playpen, that my husband and I had to assemble.
I blinked and the fish were one month old.
Probably not the most humane photo opp, I realize now.
In no time at all, it had been two months since they hatched.
Somebody gave me this casserole dish for my wedding and this is how I used it. The fry had to go somewhere while I cleaned the tank.
The fry began to enjoy what I called egg bombs, which was a piece of hard-boiled egg yolk wrapped in cheesecloth and dunked in the tank.
At about three months, the fry discovered the joy of peas, which I carefully shelled and squashed for them.
At this point, summer vacation intervened, and rather than trust anyone else with my babies, I packed their tank and they rode in a bucket with me to the Jersey shore for a week. I should’ve taken some pictures.
I took more pictures when they were about five months old.
In case you're wondering, this is how much fish food I have.
Here is Augustus McCrae, (front) the first fish to have a name, always the biggest of the bunch.
Gus continued to grow.
Gus's companion, Woodrow Call.
Unfortunately (or fortunately for my friends who were already bothered enough with offers of goldfish), Nemo was among many fry who bit the gravel. Like many other batches of animals born by the hundreds, not every goldfish fry that hatches will make it.
At eight months, seven of the largest were ready to go their new home. I put them in a jar for the ride.
My fry meet their new friends in the tank at Abington's Tien Thai Pho restaurant.
Meanwhile, back at home, the remaining survivors, who have gone from the playpen in the big tank to several months in their own two-gallon tank, go back into their parents’ tank.
Yes, someone is always pooping.
Bling (one of two possible fathers) and Augustus.
One month later, my childhood art teacher, still a friend today, adopts six of the fry.
The promises of a few other friends to adopt turn out flakier than fish food, but it’s ok. Goldfish are quite a responsibility, I’ve learned. I’ve had my oldest ones for about eight years and they have moved with me no less than eight times. Cleaning a 40-gallon tank is no picnic, their equipment and materials are expensive, and every time I go out of town I have to set up these irritating battery-powered feeders.
The one-year-old Woodrow Call settles into his new digs. Note that the fish behind him is actually about six years old.
And then, Mom decides that she wants a few – Gus and Call, in particular. So, for her 52nd birthday (and Gus and Call’s first), I bring them in a bucket. By the time Gus and Call arrive at their new tank, they are extremely well-traveled goldfish, having visited four states: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland.
Mom already has four goldfish known as The Wedding Fish. When I got married five years ago, she decided that goldfish would make a charming centerpiece for the tables. Four of them survived the reception and the day after the wedding, I bought a tank for them. They’ve lived at my parents’ house ever since.
A furry big brother.
So there you have it. Seven fry are left. A few are still available for adoption if you’re serious about fish. A year after they hatched, I sometimes still stop to reflect on the bizarre fact that one night last year, I went to bed with three fish and woke up with three hundred.
Here’s a video from this week, featuring both the original culprits and their remaining progeny in some excellent pellet-gulping action.
For those who haven’t been in on it from the beginning and want the whole story, visit The Goldfish Fry Saga category and scroll to the bottom for the first post.