". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Monday, October 22, 2012

Fish Fail

Back in July we purchased a 20-gallon aquarium for my mother. She lives with us, but although she is ambulatory and in generally good health, she does not get out of the house much and no longer reads or pursues any hobbies. My husband thought the fish tank might provide a pleasing alternative to television as well as turn into something that my youngest child would be able to share with his grandma. I remember our having an aquarium when I was growing up and don't recall its being that complicated. So when my husband suggested one for my mom's birthday I agreed. How hard could it be?

A lot harder, it turns out, than I ever imagined. I have lost track of the number of times I have carried water samples to the pet store. When we first set up the tank, we followed the instructions perfectly. We added all the recommended water treatments and let the filter work for a week before we took in the first water sample. That sample tested too high on the pH scale. We added "pH down," waited a few days, and tested again. Still too high. After several more trips on the pH merry-go-round, we finally achieved safe range and got the green light to buy our first fish. We took home three of the red wag platy specimen, a hardy, tropical fish marketed as an excellent choice for beginners like us. We were excited to finally have fish and thought we were on our way! The salesgirl cautioned us about overfeeding, a common newbie mistake. Instead of feeding the fish twice per day, as the fish food container suggested, we limited feedings to one pinch of fish food per day. Our platies (platys?) seemed to be happy.

Within a week, however, we could tell something was wrong. Our fish were not as active as they had been. We noticed what looked like tiny white specks on several of them. Back to the pet store we went. It turned out our fish had Ichthyopthirius multifiliis, a parasite more commonly known as "Ick." Not to worry--there is a treatment for that. We bought a bottle of "Super Ick Cure" and added as directed. But within a week all the fish were dead. We returned them to the pet store to collect on our two-week money-back guarantee and also took back another water sample. Upon dipping the test strip into our baggie of water, the salesgirl's mouth fell open: "That is the highest ammonia level I have ever seen." (For the record, a few years ago the city of Chicago became our water source, so if it's the tap water we are not alone in our toxicity.) We went back home armed with ammonia remover and did several rounds of treatment over the course of a week before retesting. The ammonia was still incredibly high. This time it was suggested that we replace most but not all the water. I purchased a tank vacuum and suctioned out about 2/3 of the water, cleaning the gravel at the same time. I replaced the water I had removed, starting from scratch with a new filter cartridge and the usual additives. I have been back to the pet store several more times, and while the pH level is fine, the ammonia level is still unacceptably high. The last time I went, the salesgirl (there are actually at least three, and they all recognize me now) looked at me with an expression of puzzled pity and suggested we totally empty the the tank and start from scratch.

We are three months into our fish odyssey and I am tired. I have run out of both money and motivation. I don't want to carry the plastic bag of shame to the pet store anymore only to have a pretty, young salesgirl sadly shake her head at me. I don't want to continue sneaking into my mother's room when she is not there in order to steal water samples from the tank without having to endure her knowing looks. "It will be easy," I told her all those months ago. "You don't have to do anything. I'll take care of it." Three months later her tank sits, pretty and gurgling, but devoid of life. Maybe I need to buy some of these. Do you think she would notice?

In other news, I am happy to report our puppy is still alive.


Susan said...

It's 20 gallons. Last I checked you could buy jugs of distilled water or spring water for about 70-cents per gallon. So for $15 you could probably fill the tank with ungunked, unnasty, unpolluted water.

(If it makes you feel any better, we had problems too with our little 1-gallon tank where we used to live. The pet store in the neighboring village told us that nobody in our village could keep fish alive on city water or well water. It was too contaminated. Critters could live only in Culligan water or distilled water.)

mz said...

I second the bottled water recommendation. We used to have a 45 gallon and bought several 5 gallon refillable/exchangeable water containers from Home Depot. Our town has city water as well and we could not use it even chemically treated for water changes. Another way of prepping tap water is to allow it to sit in open buckets for a few days before doing the change. We simply did not have space to do that though. If all else fails throw a Betta fish in there. They are probably the hardiest kind of fish I have ever had and are lovely. You can keep a male Betta with other types of non aggressive fish once your tank is established. If ammonia continues to be a problem you could do a zeolite filter cartridge. I had a beautiful established tank at one point that fell prey to ammonia. It is so frustrating. I hope it works out for you!

Cheryl said...

It's amazing to me that fish can live in ponds and lakes and oceans but need bottled water in a tank, although I do understand that in natural bodies of water there is a ecosystem at work that keeps things in balance. If we try again, we will try bottled water as a starting point and purchase a bigger filter, because since we did have the water in balance before adding fish I think the root of the problem was the filter's failure to adequately clean the water after fish started pooping and dying in it. Right now I don't have the energy to revisit the project but maybe we will try again down the road. Thanks for the suggestions!

Anonymous said...

A canary would have been nice. Just need one and they don't like to be handled, etc. All you need is a big enough cage so they can fly back and forth. You would have plenty of music in your home for it to sing along. Very simple.

Cheryl said...

Thanks for the idea, Anon. My mom had several doves and complained about the mess. We got rid of them last year. I think we are just a dog family!

Anonymous said...

Several doves would make a big mess. Stick with the dog and you will be fine!!!

Pastor Peters said...

Cheryl, I was ever so glad when the last of my middle son's fish died (a huge gourami that had grown uglier with each passing year). Owning an aquarium is a lifestyle and I quickly grew tired of the same constant attention. No more fish for me unless I can afford to have someone else handle it all and that ain't gonna be soon.