Friday, 13 May 2011

On Goldfish

A recent post from Practical Fishkeeping caught my eye, so I thought I'd write a little bit about goldfish.

Goldfish make the perfect low maintainence pet. They are sold by almost every aquatic retailer and the equipment they need - tanks, bowls, decorations and food - are widely avaliable. They are small and don't live very long, but they are easy to replace and their life cycle is a great way to teach children about life and death, or to provide a fun companion for someone who doesn't want a long-term committment. They can be kept anywhere in the house - little aquatic paradises nestled onto coffee tables, kitchen counters and bedside tables. A great gift for someone who has everything. When the time comes to flush yet another ex-fish down the toilet, we'll feel a little sad but won't let it trouble us too much. After all, it's only a goldfish.

At least, these are the myths we tell ourselves. The reality is rather uncomfortable and something quite a lot of people don't seem to want to hear.

The fact is, goldfish are one of the most abused 'pet' animals in the world. They are sold in their millions, widely avaliable from pet shops, garden centres and fairs. They are bred in factory-like conditions, churned out like any other product to be packaged, shipped around the world and eagerly sold to well meaning people who don't know the first thing about how to look after an aquatic animal. They are often kept in bowls or tiny tanks. Only the luckiest get a filter to keep their water clean. Many languish in water that doesn't get changed from one week to the next, slowly dying in their own filth. We can't see the filth, apart from perhaps a little poo on the gravel but it's there. Invisible, lethal ammonia that turns the clear water from fresh to toxic in just a few days. These beautiful animals barely grow, kept in tanks that are just too small for them. They get stunted and eventually die from a horrific combination of organ failure and poisoning. If they're really unlucky, they'll get some kind of ailment such as ulcers or fin-rot. Most will simply die young and unblemished, to be replaced by another unlucky creature who is unlikely to make it out of its infancy.

Because, you see, 3 weeks or 3 months or even 3 years isn't 'old' for a goldfish. If only I had a pound for every person who assured me their 'old' fish was doing brilliantly, at a mere year or two of age. The fish that did brilliantly until it died and they wanted  someone to sell them a replacement. The fact is that goldfish can (and should!) live well into their teens and it is certainly not unheard of for them to live until they are 20 or even 30. They are also not 'small', despite the fact that most of them are sold when barely bigger than a large marble. Those cute, 'mini' goldfish that the retailer assures you will never outgrow the chic tank that is 'just perfect for the coffee table' are just babies. Tiny, helpless babies that should grow to between 8 and 24 inches long, depending on variety. Many don't get beyond a couple of inches before their poor living conditions overcome them and they die a slow, pointless death. Goldfish mis-information is so engrained in our collective conciousness that most retailers, books and even dedicated goldfish care websites won't tell you just how big they can get, how long they live, how messy they are and how much room they need. A quick Google search for 'goldfish care' comes up with page upon page of total rubbish.

These are the goldfish 'facts of life'. Mass produced for an immoral, profit driven 'pet' market. Sold by people who are poorly trained, apathetic or told to keep their mouths shut about proper animal care by their management. Destined to live in small tanks with poor water conditions. Destined to suffer and then die young. All because the consumer is too selfish or too ignorant to even think about researching their needs. All because animals are treated like commodities, like things.

We were no better, Avalanchian and I. As children we had goldfish in bowls and it didn't strike us as odd that the poor things didn't live very long. We were sad (I remember crying when my 'Phoenix' died) but that's just how things were. As far as we were concerned, this was normal. This was 'nature'. It was only when I wanted to start keeping goldfish again as a 21 year old that I actually did a little research and realised how wrong we had all been. How wrong millions of people around the world still are.

Now, Avalanchian and I have three rescued goldfish, although only one of them is gold. Actually, he's not even fully gold. More a medley of metallic colours. They live in a 4 foot long tank that holds some 300 or so litres of water, which they share with some rather unconventional tank-mates - a ruby shark, two Chinese algae eaters and an elusive bristlenose plec. Their aquatic home is rather wild, full of fast growing plants and a lot of hair algae. Nonetheless, the water is cool and clean, providing a stable haven for the fish. We have other tanks around the house, full of happy, healthy fish and amphibians. I sometimes lift the lid on a tank and breathe in the earthy, fresh smell of tropical life. I remember the smell of my old goldfish bowl, back when I was a child. I remember that distinctive odour that I assumed was normal, that I never questioned. Sometimes that smell haunts me.

Please, don't pay for someone to abuse animals for you. Don't buy animals from shops and don't take them home as prizes from the fair. There are so many animals - from fish to dogs to horses - that need forever homes with someone who will research their needs and make a committment to them. So many advertised for sale or adoption, from rescues, shelters and regular folk who find they can't look after the animals anymore. If you buy an animal from a shop or a breeder, you're just perpetuating the cycles of abuse and neglect. Animals are not toys, not ours to do as we please with. They're not decorations, distractions or designer accessories. They are sentient beings who deserve respect and who should not be treated as things.

Meet Samwise, Merry and Red:

If you have fish or are thinking about keeping them, check out the Tropical Fish Forum (don't worry, it has a coldwater and goldfish section) and Practical Fishkeeping


  1. Sorry about that. Should never have got the goldfish at the fair but who knew things like this before the internet?

  2. Man.. that kill counter is depressing. I recommend watching "Food, Inc.". Really powerful movie. Screw Monsanto.

  3. Hi there!

    The kill counter is rather overwhelming, isn't it? Some 56 billions animals killed for food around the world every year, not including aquatic deaths or 'collateral' such as those killed by habitat loss or pesticides.

    We've not seen Food Inc. but have heard good things about it. Have you seen Earthlings? There is a link on our sidebar.