We've been having lots of fish drama at our house lately. We have two fish tanks--a large 55 gallon one, and a smaller, 30 gallon tank. Both tanks house African Cichlids, the type found in Lake Malawi, the southernmost lake in the Great Rift Valley of Eastern Africa. I won't go into lots of detail here about the different types of Cichlids out there, but when we embarked down this road we did lots and lots of research on the different types of African Cichlids, and decided on the particular collection we have now. We had to order our stock from some place in Utah three years ago and today we still have most of the original fish and THEN SOME (hence the smaller 30 gallon tank). No one told us how much these fish like to reproduce.
I love the fish. They're technically my fish, since the fish and the original 55 gallon tank (a Craigslist score) were secured for me for my birthday that year. I have always loved keeping fish--not just because I enjoy fish gazing and the feeling of calm you get when you get the chance to quietly sit and observe their underwater world, but I like the tasks associated with the fish--cleaning the tanks once a week, rearranging the rocks, filling the tanks again. I like how excited the fish get when the water is drained, and how many of them will swim to right under where the water is poured back in again, so they can play in the big splashy current. I like how once the tank is filled the fish color up beautifully and swim around filled with renewed vigor and excitement at their clean surroundings.
Some of the challenges associated with keeping these types of fish are not unlike the challenges you find in maintaining a peaceful, well-functioning home. Once the community of fish is established you have to work hard to keep it that way. If one thing changes--a new fish introduced, for instance, or another fish dying and leaving the community, or offspring reaching maturity, the whole thing can rapidly fall apart. Sometimes cleaning the tank and rearranging the rocks fixes this, and the fish scramble and readjust to the new environment, and forget whatever worries they had about the changes in their community. But Cichlids are sensitive and aggressive fish, and they can also quickly turn on another member of the tank, with very ugly, very violent results. We have been lucky in that we've had two fairly harmonious tanks up until recently. But right before Christmas one of the male fish in the larger tank--a beautiful dark blue fish, one of the original males and one of my favorites--decided he wanted a try at being alpha fish and when we returned from our trip away we found the carcass of another fish floating sadly in the currents at the bottom of the tank, and another fish badly injured.
"We have a bully fish," I told Scott and L., who overheard, was on that in an instant.
Which one is the bully fish?
What did it do?
It became quickly apparent to all of us which one was the bully fish; the one who wouldn't leave the others of its species alone--biting, chasing, tormenting in a vicious, startling way, little teeth bared, tearing scales and wreaking havoc. We removed the injured fish from the tank and set up a little floating hospital box for him. But it also became clear that the fish had been too injured to make it.
T. named him Nut.
"If you name him," L. pointed out, "we'll get attached and then when he dies, we'll be sad."
"I think it's good to name him," I said.
"A fish shouldn't die without a name," my sweet and wise T. pointed out, lip trembling.
L. , who has always shown a very minimal interest in the tanks, in vague, abstract ways, suddenly became very interested. He became obsessed with keeping tabs on the bully fish, and exclaiming in horror and anger when he saw it turn on others. He would pace around the tank during dinner, and jab his finger at the bully fish, and admonish him.
"Why are there fish like that!" He raged one afternoon, after we had to remove yet another fish--this one not as badly injured--and relegate it to another floating hospital. "Why are there bullies in the world?" Then he corrected himself: "Why are there bully fish in the world?"
It's interesting to me that there are; that there are fish of the same species content with their place in the tank, and then other fish, like the bully fish, who feel the need to rise up and take control, to attack others, to close in on the weaker, to one-up the rest of them and seize control. Of course they are everywhere, these fish: in our schools, at work, in our governments, in our own communities.
In the end, poor Nut died, and T. cried. L. turned stony against the bully fish. We had to remove the fish, and his son, who was showing the same propensity for violence. Scott drove 30 minutes to the only aquarium store of reputation that sells African Cichlids and we gave them to the owner, who set them up in their own tank where, hopefully, someone who loves them will buy them and take them home.
L. has switched off his interest in the tank as quickly as a plug pulled on a lighted lamp. Order has been restored, life in the tank is harmonious again. We buried Nut in the flowerbed at the front of the house, and the other injured fish is now back in the tank, where he's recovering beautifully.
And even though the fish-related drama seems behind us, I'm still thinking over L.'s reactions to it all. I'm afraid and sad of the fact that he seemed to identify with the victim-fish, and that it upset him so much, beyond the obvious ways.
I wish I knew exactly what he was thinking about it all. I wish had an easy answer for him: why are there bully fish in the world?