19 September 2005

Monday Menagerie XVI

PyroManiac devotes Monday space to esoteric and offbeat things, in the hope that these will supply learning experiences for us all.

Siamese Fighting Fish

The young Pecadillo lives very near me, and he is an aquarium technician. He cleans tanks and sells fish for a living.

BettaAbout a year ago, he gave me a fishbowl for my desk at the office. It contained a single fish—a brightly colored, luxuriously-finned beauty. He said it was a Betta (pronounced "bet·uh").

I tried to talk him out of giving it to me, because my limited experience with tropical fish left me with the impression that they needed an aquarium, pumps, water filters, heaters, and more attention than I can give a fish during my already-busy office hours.

But Pecadillo was insistent, and it's bad manners to refuse a gift, so I accepted. Pecadillo explained that this fish would be perfectly fine in a bowl, with no attention other than regular feeding and a simple water change. They actually prefer the environment of a small bowl with still water, rather than a large aquarium with filtered, aerated water. Pecadillo gave me a bottle of stuff that could be squirted into plain tap-water in order to neutralize chlorine and instantly make the water fit for the fish.

As for filtering and aeration, it seems Bettas have a breathing organ that permits them to gulp oxygen right out of the atmosphere, just like you and me. In fact, they get most of their oxygen that way, not through their gills like normal fish. Their natural habitat is pools of standing water in places like rice paddies. So they don't need their water aerated. Despite their delicate and colorful appearance, these are very, very hardy fish.

It all seemed very hassle-free, and the fish was an interesting conversation-piece, so I cleared a spot front and center on my desk, and the fish moved in. Pecadillo would come in and clean the bowl for me every week or so, and when he couldn't do it, I did.

When I cleaned the fish-bowl, I wanted it sparkling, because while a clear, clean, glistening bowl with a bright Betta is a wonderful desk-ornament, a dingy bowl of cloudy filth with hard-water evaporation rings on the side of the bowl and a fish gasping for air is just—well, sad. And ugly. And I think that's true no matter how colorful the fish is.

So in my zeal to have a sparkling jewel of a fishbowl, I took my time and did a thorough job. To make sure it really shone, the couple of times I cleaned the container, I used strong dishwashing detergent and a scouring pad to make that glass shimmer.

After the fish died, Pecadillo explained that the detergent was a bad idea. These fish are indeed very hardy, he said, but detergent leaves a residue in the bowl that kills the fish. He insists he had explained all this to me very carefully when he first gave me the fishbowl. I have no recollection of that.

Anyway, I sent the fish's corpse on "The Long Swim" and put a small memorial plaque (printed on heavy paper stock with a fancy font) over the toilet in the executive washroom. Some scoundrel flushed the plaque the next day, but the death of my Betta was widely mourned throughout the office.

Within days, our resident software-hardware genius, Ted, came in with a selection of Bettas he said needed new homes because their owner was moving. He knew, of course, about the vacancy in my fishbowl, so he offered me my choice of fish. I chose a luxuriant blue one with an abundance of flowing fins.

Before putting the new fish in the old bowl, I rang Pecadillo and asked him to come inspect the container, the marbles I had in the bottom of it for decoration, and the water quality. I was keen to make sure the habitat was just right for the fish this time.

Betta Version 2.0
Betta Version 2.0
It was a good thing I called. Pecadillo knew something I didn't: city water officials had begun adding a new chemical to our water supply, so I needed a different bottle of goo to neutralize the harmful elements. Pecadillo cleaned the bowl and fixed the water in about one-tenth of the time it would have taken me, and he pronounced it safe for Betta version 2.0 to move in.

Ted was still seeking homes for two more Bettas, so I asked Pecadillo what he thought about a second fish to keep this one company. Pecadillo sighed deeply and explained that these are Siamese Fighting Fish, and they pretty much need to be alone. Put another Betta in the bowl, and one will soon kill the other. He said fish stores often keep Bettas in little containers with lids, because they are so aggressive that if they see another Betta in a bowl next door, they will actually leap into the adjacent bowl in their zeal to fight and kill the other fish. They prefer to be alone in their stagnant bowls.

Not enough brain capacity to be bored
Not enough brain capacity to be bored
Plus they have limited brain capacity, so they don't need much to keep them from being bored.

It occurred to me that the perfect name for my fish was "Darwin."

Darwin is happy on my desk, where he has now been for many months. My secretary feeds him when I'm out of the office. Pecadillo still maintains his fishbowl. (I've cleaned it once or twice myself—no detergent.) He has actually survived two generations of secretaries. He endures insults from people who make snide and pessimistic remarks about his life-expectancy.
He has survived the abuse of many small children, who invariably tap on his bowl or feed him things he shouldn't have. And he is as healthy and aggressive as the day he came to live on my desk. Put a pellet of food in his water, and he attacks it. The warmer it gets, the happier he is.

Phil's signature


MTG said...

Would it not be nice to be that content with that little to sustain us? I remember my first SFF.

Steve said...

At our company, we have a policy against any kinds of pets in the building, but we've bent the rules a bit and made one exception. Our department assistant happens to have a Siamese Fighting Fish named Meatloaf. His little bowl has a plant that floats on the surface of the water, and he swims among the roots that protrude into the water.

Dan Burrell said...

I just sent my SFF/Betta on his "long swim" last week after 3 years of meaningless life in my office. (Yes, he was dead when I flushed.) I only cleaned his bowl once in 3 years and he didn't seem to mind. If you want some fun, put a mirror next to their bowl/aquarium and watch them go nuts. The best thing about them is that they do not shed and you don't have to walk them.

Tony Byrne said...

The Betta I had a long time ago bit the fins off the other fish in the bowl so that they would die.

jthomas899 said...

Could this lead to a new sport like cock fighting only with water? Will this be the scandal that brings down Phil Johnson?

Mike said...

"He has actually survived two generations of secretaries. He endures insults from people who make snide and pessimistic remarks about his life-expectancy. He has survived the abuse of many children, who invariably tap on his bowl or feed him things he shouldn't have."

Wow. Who would have ever guessed that someone named Phil Johnson would have Darwin on Trial?


FX Turk said...

I think you should have named the fish "Dave".

Matthew Carroll said...

"PyroManiac devotes Monday space to esoteric and offbeat things, in the hope that these will supply learning experiences for us all."

What are we to learn from the Betta post? Is the lonely, aggresive existence of Darwin to be a warning to us all?

And if, from time to time, we find ourselves swimming in our own crud, where do we find someone as kind and knowledgeable as Pecadillo who knows how to cure what ails us?

Habitans in Sicco said...

The lesson of this tale is obvious: Phil's pet is a metaphor for another "Darwin Fish" who bites and devours members of his own species. No matter how filthy his bowl gets, this creature prefers to be alone in an environment he has filthied, rather than enjoy the streams of living water.

Am I right?

Brad said...

I had a beta named MO (short for Moses). During college, while I left on break, I asked the youth pastor at my church to look after him. I came back a week later and found Mo floating belly-up in a few inches of water. The youth pastor had set the bowl in the direct afternoon sunlight where the water evaporated and cooked MO.

Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post. It was the desert post after the prime rib feast!

Thank you Phil for filling a request!

Chris Freeland said...

I actually had a roommate who bred beta fish. At one point we had more than 300 in our apartment at one time. Pretty amazing.

If you get a chance to buy a female, have Pecadillo show you how to breed them. You put a half of a styrofoam cup on the top of the bowl. The male will blow bubbles until they fill the underside of the cup. Then when the eggs are layed, he puts them in his mouth and blows them into the bubbles until they hatch. Sometimes they fall out, and he has to redeposit them.

Fascinating to watch.

John said...

What a great little story! I thoroughly enjoyed this.


Benjamin said...

What might we learn from this?

The many close-calls from ignorance and the single sad incident involving detergent are excellent illustrations of the inextricable link between metaphysics and ethics.

What you don't know about the reality of things can lead one down that ethical road paved with good intentions.

Brian said...


just an fyi, fighting these fish has been around a long time

my dad did it back in the 60s and they bet quite a bit of money on them too, just like cock fights and dog fights

Betas have been great fish for my kids over the years. :)

Try this setup, it is nice...

Get a vase and put marbles in the bottom. Put live bamboo in it and fill with water and a beta.


David said...

The lesson?

A couple of my younger kids would say it's that soap will kill you.