SARAH SMILEY

First fish, then a dog

Posted July 24, 2011, at 2:26 p.m.
Last modified July 24, 2011, at 4:54 p.m.

Lindell desperately wants a dog, so last week we bought him a fish. He’s still too young to realize this doesn’t add up. And anyway, the excitement of a new pet — any kind of pet — is enough.

At the pet store, however, we met several obstacles.

“You have to cycle the tank first,” the fish expert told us. “The water has to build bacteria for a week before you can put a fish in it.”

“But I promised my son a fish today.”

“Then I guess this is a good time to teach him patience.”

I must have looked like a lunatic mother. In fact, I hadn’t had a chance to comb my hair that morning and I was wearing the same clothes from the day before.

“I’ve been trying to teach him that for four years!” I said.

The clean-cut, 20-something boy looked scared. He backed away from me and glanced over his left and right shoulders. “Might I suggest a betta fish,” he said.

A betta-what?

Apparently betta fish can come to the surface and breathe oxygen, so high levels of ammonia and nitrites do not put them at risk during the tank’s initial “startup cycle.” But betta fish are kind of sleepy and boring looking. They live in plastic containers the size of a tub of butter. They have nothing on the see-through glass catfish or the the miniature shark fish my kids were eyeing.

So we bought a pink betta and decided it would be mine. In other words, I took one for the team. In a week, once the pH levels in the water have settled, the boys, and in particular Lindell, could pick out something cool like a bumblebee fish.

“Now you need a heater, filter, substrate and perhaps some live plants,” the expert said. All to keep the water in balance, of course.

I was beginning to think a dog might have been easier. Then I remembered the border collie we used to own. She once dug up a small tree in our front yard and ran down the street with it clenched between her teeth. Sometimes sleepy is good.

“Maybe we could get two betta fish,” one of the boys suggested.

That’s when the expert told us that multiple betta fish will attack and kill each other.

Note: Do not tell three boys that two incompatible fish will fight each other if your intent is to decrease their enthusiasm.

The five of us spent the next two hours at home setting up our new aquarium. Here are a few things I learned:

• Position the tank first; fill it with water second.

• Ten gallons is a lot of water to spill on the floor.

• A 4-year-old can’t carry a pitcher full of water.

• Betta fish get lively when they are out of the tub-of-butter container.

Next, Lindell named the betta fish, which was really my fish, but which I lent to Lindell until he can get a different fish. He named her Puffy Fluffy.

One by one, the boys carefully placed the ornaments they had selected for the aquarium into the substrate (fancy name for rocks). Ford’s was a piece of driftwood with a live plant growing on it. Owen’s was a tiki head that for some reason caused the children to erupt into a song: hoo, haa, hee, tiki, tiki. And the last ornament was Lindell’s: a bright yellow pineapple house and a tiny SpongeBob SquarePants figurine (it was like watching a touchdown in the Super Bowl when Puffy Fluffy finally, days later, swam through the holes of the pineapple house).

Everyone dreamed about what kind of fish they would get in a week. Ford wanted a glass catfish. Owen liked the lionfish but, unfortunately, it is suitable only for salt water. Lindell wanted the mysterious “skeleton fish” that no one else had actually seen at the pet store. I saw more tears in my future.

“I guess I’ll get a bottom feeder,” Dustin said. “Because someone has to.”

Dustin, taking the next one for the team. I wonder whether he will let Lindell name his fish, too. And I wonder whether Lindell will name it something like “Dave.” If he names it “Skinny Minny,” I might be offended.

That first night, all three boys fell asleep watching the fish tank. After we carried them to their beds, Dustin and I watched it, too. I remembered the fullness of having a family pet. Even if it is a fish. And then I remembered the heartache of watching our past pets leave us. I wondered, why do we set ourselves up like this. Why do we bring animals into our lives when we know someday we will have to say goodbye or, um, flush them down the toilet?

Well, I decided that we do it because a boy needs a dog — to take to camp, to chase in the backyard, to sleep at the foot of his bed. And according to Dad, the boy has to start with a fish. We are off to a good start.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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