Fish Out of Water

Fish Out of Water
By Ingrid Newkirk (article courtesy of PETA)

This is a true story about a fish who lived in an aquarium in a country house and longed for weekday afternoons.

During the mornings, when the house was quiet, the fish spent his time at the end of the tank near the window, catching the morning sunlight on his fins and browsing among the reeds. But, at about 4:30 p.m., he swam to the other side of the tank and stared at the hallway door.

At that time of day, the man came home from work. Before the key turned in the lock, the fish began “pacing,” swimming back and forth without letup, showing the sort of impatience you might see in a person drumming his fingers on a table top. Every few laps the fish paused and hung in the water, staring hopefully at the door.

Perhaps he sensed that the man loved him, as wholly inadequate as a man’s love for a fish must be. In fact, the man had usually forgotten all about the fish until he reached the door, but then he remembered and rushed straight into the living room so as not to disappoint him. The fish jumped and wagged his tail like a dog, lifting about a fifth of his body clean out of the water. The man would gently scratch the fish’s back, the fish offering first one side of his body to be petted, then the other, making little waves with the swishing of his fins.

The fish didn’t know that, sometimes, for a lark, the man had thrown cherry bombs into the creek when the carp were spawning and then killed them with blows from a two-by-four as they thrashed about on the bank. The fish didn’t know that on summer days the man still caught and gutted fish from that creek and grilled them just outside the window.

Not that the man would ever harm the fish in the tank, but, like most of us, he had a compartmentalized mind. Killing fish whom you don’t know is just part of our culture.

The captive fish tried to make the best of what was otherwise a plain life. He cleaned rocks by rolling them about in his mouth, swam through the hair curlers fastened together to form a jungle gym, and tickled his back in the bubbles from the aerator. Once, he swam purposefully to the west end of the tank, seized a plastic plant in his tiny jaws, and dragged it back to his corner. The next day, when the man tidied the tank and put the plant back in its “place,” the fish moved it again to the new spot he had chosen for it.

The fish had a sport. When the fish saw a cat tiptoe over the bookshelves to drink from his “aquarium,” he would lie in wait for her in the reeds. Experience had taught the cats to peer into the depths for any sign of an ambush, but the fish knew that and stayed quiet as a mouse. Only when the cat’s tongue descended, did he burst into action, propelling himself up through the reeds like a torpedo, hell-bent on taking a chunk out of that raspy organ. If she sensed the underwater eruption, the cat might get her first lap in before tongue and fish met. No blood was ever drawn on either side, but the contest provided a welcome diversion.

The fish kept to himself, taking the presence of newcomers to his tank with all the dignity and despair of a librarian who finds a group of young bikers living between the shelves. He would puff himself up and shake his fins at them and give chase if they did anything truly appalling, but he never attacked.

In the end he outlived them all. Some of them died of “seasickness,”–the trauma of sloshing around in the bag from ocean to distributor, in the truck to the pet shop, and then in the car on the way home; others succumbed to epidemics of “ick” that destroyed their fins, sending them spinning helplessly to the bottom of the tank, tiny vestiges of their graceful selves; still more suffocated when power failures robbed oxygen from the water.

On the Saturday the tank cracked, there were only two other fishes left. They were African “elephant-noses ,” exotic fish with trumk-like protuberances. The old fish expected their presence; he and they kept as respectful a distance from each other as fish can in a modest aquarium.

The man had been at the movies and returned to find water all over the floor and still dripping from a crack in the glass. In the inch of liquid left in the bottom of the tank, three individuals lay on their sides, dying.

Rescue had to be effected without delay. The fish was whisked into a large pot. One elephant-nose went into a saucepan, the other into a coffee pot; but this last little fish struggled, caught his long nose in the spout, and suffered a terrible injury. When the substitute tank was set up, the injured fish could not breathe properly or keep his balance. His companion helped keep him afloat, pushing him up against the side of the tank so he could reach food and air. But this didn’t save his life. Within a week of the injured elephant-nose’s death, his companion died, too. After that, the old fish was alone again.

When I had first seen him, he had only been about half an inch long, and I was still eating cod roe on toast and salmon steak. By the time the elephant-noses died, I had stopped eating others of his kind. As he had grown, so had my understanding that there might be something wrong with pretending that fish could be kept as living room decorations. Human amusement was not worth their barren lives and “accidental” deaths.

When the fish died, I found myself trying to imagine what his ancestral waters were like, where and how he had been captured or bred, and what on earth we were thinking of when we acquired him and robbed him of his little fish destiny. Sorry, old fellow. Truly.