Adventures in Betta-sitting

My mother was opposed to pets of all sorts, especially Goldfish, which she considered to be ‘gateway pets’.

She also had unruly hair that required frequent maintenance. The hair problem, combined with a lack of after school childcare, made it necessary for her to bring my sister and me with her to her hair appointments at the local mini-mall.

To keep us occupied during her appointment, she would give us money for ice cream at the mall’s Dairy Queen. We would scarf down our ice cream then head to the pet shop where we could imagine that maybe one day, we would have a pet of our own.

My sister and I were thrilled when we finally realized, after many hair appointments, that Goldfish are shockingly cheap. Armed with this valuable information, we came up with a scheme to finally get ourselves a pet.

The next hair appointment, we got an ice cream as usual, but instead of getting fancy cones with sauce or toppings, we bought the cheap soft serves and pocketed the change. Optimistic from sugar, and rich with leftover quarters and nickels, we went to the pet store as usual but this time, we weren’t browsing. We were customers.


j_arlecchino / Foter / CC BY-NC

Our newly coiffed mother was less than thrilled when she saw us with our plastic-bagged pet and our little container of flakes.

“They don’t last long,” she said, annoyed and a little grim. “You’ll see.”

Sadly, she was right. Our first fish died in its salad bowl within a day.

But hair grows and mothers forget. Four to six weeks later, we got a new fish.

It was a vicious and deadly cycle.

I don’t know how many there were but it was more than a few. I mourned them at the time but otherwise haven’t thought a lot about those unfortunate fish since. That changed last week when a neighbour, Mrs. B, asked me if I would fish-sit for her, and those memories rose to the surface of my consciousness like, well, dead fish.

“Can you watch our Betta?” asked Mrs. B.

I had no idea what she was talking about.

“Our fish,” she explained. “Fishie. We are going away for Passover. Can you take the fish?”

At first I was kind of excited. The girls would love to fish-sit. It would be like having a pet that we could return. Of course we would take the fish!

Mrs. B told me she’d drop her off before they left.

It wasn’t until later that day that the memories of my old pets started to surface and made me wonder if fish-sitting would be a mistake.

A couple of days later, I returned from grocery shopping to hear delighted squeals coming from the kitchen. Our baby sitter looked like she had a headache; my children looked like they might burst with joy.

“Mrs. B brought the fish!” yelled my kids. “We have a fish!”

The fish looked nervous. I didn’t blame her.

“Did Mrs. B leave any instructions?” I asked.

“Just to feed it,” answered our baby sitter, LoriLee. “She told us to give four or five little pellets a day but no more.”

“Anything else?” I had told LoriLee that this fish business had me worried.

“Nope. Just feed her. Bettas are really basic fish. You can buy them pretty much anywhere,” she added, confirming my fear that poor Fishie might bite it at any moment.

It was then that I realized that Mrs. B had never actually said when she’d be back.

I started a mini-log to keep track of Fishie’s stay:

Day 1 (delivery day, afternoon):

Uneventful. Moved fish away from loud, pokey children to quieter spot on mantel. Fish swimming in glass vase. She ate her food. Seems happy.

Day 2:

Children fight over who will feed fish. I decide that it should be me. I can’t risk them giving it too many pellets.

Took kids to Cabrillo Marine Aquarium and saw many healthy looking fish. Feeling more confident about Fishie’s chances with our family.

Took a walk on the pier and saw a caught but not dead fish being toyed with by a slobbering dog. Ominous!

Day 3:

Allowed the girls to ‘rock paper scissors’ to decide who gets to feed the fish but controlled the process so tightly that everyone lost interest. Good!

The small glass vase is starting to look a little dingy.

Reminded of the quote from Benjamin Franklin about fish and house-guests stinking after three days. I realize that he didn’t mean fish that are actual house-guests but if that water gets any cloudier, he will be proven all too right.

Day 4:

Called my sister to talk about the fish and ask her if she remembers or ever thinks about our former pets.

“Are you kidding?” she said. “I remember them too well. And how Mum would always be so calm and tell us that she lived on a farm as she flushed them!”

“I didn’t realize that those fish had traumatized me for life. Fishie is bringing it all back. Anyway, her water is cloudy and I think I have to change it. It must be horrible for her in there,” I told my sister.

“Don’t do it!” she said. “You’ll regret it. Remember the one that almost died in the sink?”

How could I forget? It was one of the few that lasted long enough to need a fresh bowl. We’d filled the sink and dumped her in to wait while we cleaned. But the plug was leaky and the water drained out. The fish flopped desperately. My sister screamed. I scrambled for the tap, sick with horror. The fish lived that day but not much longer.

“Just leave it alone. Your neighbour would’ve told you if you were supposed to change the water.”

I knew my sister was right. I hung up and checked on the fish. She looked a bit lethargic.

Called my husband who also strongly advised me to leave the fish alone.

Decided to go online and see if there were any suggestions about caring for a Betta. As expected, the internet turned up a trove of advice and information (mostly consistent!) and it seems that Bettas are hardier than Goldfish (i.e. as long as the water temperature is exactly right, they probably won’t die when you clean the bowl)so I decided to go ahead and change the water.

I cleaned a square vase (like the one she came in but bigger) and added some room temperature water. It felt perfect. I was reasonably certain that it wouldn’t kill Fishie.

Scooping her out was tricky (breath-holding/cold-sweat tricky) and eight year old was providing running commentary as well as ‘helpful’ advice. Fishie did not want to be in a ladle and was surprisingly hard to catch but eventually, she gave up and allowed the transfer.

She seems to be doing okay now. Eight year old thinks Fishie is grateful for the fresh bowl but I doubt it.

Day 4 (later):

Repeatedly checked on fish. Caught her resting near the bottom several times and had to gently tilt the bowl to get her moving. She is doing well but may be a bit annoyed that I keep waking her.

Allowed the three year old to drop four pellets into the clean bowl.

Fishie seemed pleased.

Day 5:

All is well. But where is Mrs. B? I thought this was supposed to be short trip!

Was going to cook fish sticks for the kids tonight but that seems insensitive. Fishie is disrupting our lives!

Day 6 (Easter Sunday):

Fishie is alive and well and even participated in the Easter egg hunt. She has become a member of the family! fishie at easter

I really hope she leaves before I have to change that water again.

Still no sign of Mrs. B.

Called my sister. “Our neighbours had us watch their fish once,” she told me. “They supposedly forgot about it when they came home. We had it for more than a month.”

“Oh my God! Did it live?”

“Yes,” answered my sister. “It lived but I kind of hated those neighbours after.”

When is Passover OVER anyway?

The internet says it goes until next Saturday….

Day 7:

Nothing to report. Fishie is perky today and swims over to me when I check on her which I do almost as frequently as I spy out the window for signs of Mrs. B.

I hope this story has a happy ending!

Day 8:

Fishie is still with us as both a house guest and a living being. My fish-care skills have  improved significantly since childhood. Will change bowl later today….Unless Mrs. B shows up. Where are you Mrs. B???

5PM: Fresh fish! Not quite seamless but second water change was much less traumatic for me and Fishie. Will be buying a new ladle and strainer after Passover….

Day 9:

Still here. Still swimming.

Fishie

For the rest of the story, look at The Fishie Report.

A love story

He sauntered, uninvited, through an open screen door, into my cheap student apartment. He walked right over to where I was sprawled on a too-small sofa, watching TV, and hopped on top of me.

“Aaaah!” I shrieked. “What are you? Get off of me!”

The intruder looked sort of, but not really, like a cat.

He was black and white with a long bony body and a huge head. His face was mostly black, with just a little white on the chin and forehead. He had enormous yellow eyes, a crooked nose that rattled when he breathed, and long white hairs that sprung from his eyebrows.

As I tried to get him off of me, he just seemed to hug (yes, hug) me tighter.

He looked hungry so I carried him to the kitchen and got him some food and water.

He watched me constantly and seemed pathetically grateful for the kindness. I petted him and he purred like a chainsaw.

“What IS that?” asked my roommate, all red-eyed and confused when he got home.

“I think it’s a cat,” I told him. “A really huge, weird-looking cat.”

After an hour or two, the cat-creature left through the same open screen door and disappeared for the night.

We saw each other again the next day when I went upstairs to have coffee with my neighbour. There he was. Curled up in the hall like a great big furry lump. He leapt to his feet and rushed to greet me, acting like a dog, and jumped into my arms, trusting I would catch him. I did.

I didn’t want a cat. I already had one (another stray) who was about as snuggly as a goldfish and was barely around except for food and vet visits which were killing me financially.

In that moment I understood how strange it must be for pets to be chosen and instantly loved by their people because I had just been chosen. I was his.

My neighbour, who was a photographer, had already decided he should be called Ilford, after the black and white film.

I held Ilford the whole visit and when I left, he followed me back to my apartment downstairs where I got him more food.

I took a walk in the neighbourhood, Ilford following alongside and behind, leaping through gardens, showing off his cat moves as he attacked plants and shrubs. I looked for ‘Lost Cat’ signs about Ilford. There were none. Given how thin and needy he seemed, I wasn’t surprised. We walked home and when we got there, I held the door open for him.

I had a new cat.

“What an unusually, uh, striking creature,” said the vet on our first visit as I beamed with pride much as I would almost twenty years later about my children. Ilford measured 3 feet from nose to tail. Really large. The vet estimated that he was about four years old.

Regular food and proper care put flesh on his extended frame and it wasn’t long before Ilford started to look more like a cat, and eventually, a chubby cat. People would sometimes still ask what he was but not often.

My life was already full of love (family and friends) and I’d had my share of infatuations, but Ilford was my first experience with being on the giving end of totally unconditional love. He changed me.

He wasn’t typically lovable. Not traditionally good-looking – you would never see him on a pack of toilet paper – and he was no great shakes at personal hygiene (I was probably making excuses but I blamed the jerk who had abandoned him). He rarely even bothered to cover his soiled kitty litter, just scratching his feet in a half-hearted way that reminded me of people who fake-wash their hands, and he snored like a grizzly bear but I adored him.

I would walk in the door and he would jump into my arms, or, if he was outside playing, would recognize my step and come running, his furry strange face filled with joy.

He would bring me revolting gifts of headless pigeons or live tiny mice that he would spit out at my feet. I was always flattered as well as horrified. I got him a bell for his neck to stop the gift-giving but couldn’t help feeling proud when he would catch something anyway.

I would be sick with worry if he took too long to come home at night, or worse, didn’t come home until morning.

We were together, and madly in love for more than ten years until he passed away. That was nine years ago and I now have three small human creatures of my own (that can also be incredibly gross and charming) who I love overwhelmingly and unconditionally.

But I still miss Ilford.

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