Saving Nemo

I blame Sesame Street. Elmo has a goldfish named Dorothy so of course every three year old wants a Dorothy. What I didn't notice right away, since I would leave the room when Elmo came on to preserve my sanity, is that it is a different goldfish in every episode. I found that out after we gifted a goldfish to Danny on his third birthday. He named it Dorothy. It lasted less than a month.

Did you know that dead fish don't float right away? It takes about 12 hours for them to balloon and go belly up. What really happens is that they go to the bottom, hide in the corner, and then die. And that is precisely how we found Dorothy one morning. I told Danny it was sleeping. Then I texted my husband and asked to pick up new fish on the way home that evening from work. As the day went on we devised a plan of getting a new tank and extra goldfish, setting it up in the playroom, and selling it as Dorothy got moved to a new home and got new friends. It worked. We got a five gallon tank kit with a filter and a lamp built into the hood. The lamp worked for less than six months. The fish quickly filled the upstairs with rotten stench of ammonia and I found out the hard way that goldfish are the dirtiest fish to own. Ever. I decided they needed to go. But they were stubborn and lasted for over a year.

As soon as the last goldfish met the toilet bowl, Danny asked for new fish. No goldfish, he couldn't tolerate the smell either. I scrubbed the entire tank, changed gravel, and he brought home four neon tetras. George, Mango, Knife, and Spoon. I suggested Paul, John, George and Ringo, but only George stuck. They were happy little fish with Mango getting rather fat. But neither the filter nor I were able to keep up with the algae growth and pretty soon all four sides of the tank were covered with a thick coat of green slime. I sent the boys out for an algae eater one evening. They brought back a black plecostomus* that was about two inches long. Pretty big compared to the tetras. In the morning I discovered that he worked through the night and licked the entire tank clean. Not a single algae in sight. Off to buy algae wafers for the busy little guy. He gained an inch in a month. One day we went to the library and I saw an enormous pleco in their 100 gallon fish tank who looked exactly like ours. After some research I discovered, to my horror, that what we had was a common pleco that have a tendency to grow to at least a foot in length.

Last year we moved the tank from the playroom to the office, mainly because my mom who sometimes came to visit didn't want to "sleep with the fishies" (the filter gurgles and the pleco, being nocturnal, is very busy moving around gravel at night looking for food). Now a five gallon tank made of glass and full of water weighs more than five gallons. 1 gallon of water weighs over 8 lbs. It was like moving a dead body. So we had to very carefully slide the tank onto a side table on wheels (thank you IKEA) and then gently roll it from one room to the other. The fish didn't seem to mind. I wonder If they even noticed. The pleco was slowly getting larger and larger.

My cousins from New York came to visit and after seeing our tank asked how come there is no Fork. Fork, the yellow guppy appeared soon after they left.

This May, I figured that we need a bigger tank. The five gallon was starting to look kind of crowded. So Danny saved and saved (since technically these are his fish and his tank) and bought a 10 gallon. It took me two hours to set it up and move the fish over. The water turned cloudy and green in less than 24 hours and after another 24 hours the foul stench emanated  from the tank. Then we lost George. The pleco hid inside an alien skull ornament and wouldn't come out.

Danny immediately needed a replacement fish. George The Second was purchased along with a red guppy, Wiggly, and a cleaner shrimp, Sushi. Unfortunately, we walked away while a Petco employee was fishing the shrimp out and what we got was not what I wanted. I wanted a busy and happy one that was cleaning everyone, we got the loner from the corner. He molted two days after arriving to our house and then died 24 hours later. The water was still smelly and getting worse and my pleco was not eating.

I started Googling like crazy and discovered that since the tank was new, it had to cycle in order to establish good bacteria level that kept all the levels in check. And that awful smell was high levels of ammonia. I found myself buying over $50 worth of test kits to test the water levels and then spent every day doing partial water changes using my kitchen Pyrex measuring cup and the largest mixing bowl I had. Then three of the tetras: Mango, Knife, and Spoon got sick. They had fish rot. From water stress! I yanked them out into a small bowl which I called the hospital. We lost Spoon the next day. Tank was still not recovering and we were getting close to leaving for a vacation. I was getting worried that I was leaving all this nightmare to my friend who kindly agreed to fish sit. A week before we were about to leave I found a post on a fish forum that if you do a daily water and filter change and skip a feeding the water will finally return to normal levels. I starved the fish overnight and in the morning everything finally tested in the safe zone. The pleco emerged from his abode and asked for food. My friend was left in charge of a healthy tank and a fish hospital. Everyone survived on her watch, even the patients. The pleco was now too big for the skull, but somehow he still managed to coil himself into it. Sometimes he'd stick out a body part.

A week after we returned, Danny begged out two more fish. Wiggly and Fork were duking it out for the tank dominance completely forgetting that it was the, now enormous at seven inches, pleco who was king of the tank and George the Second was feeling lonely. The boys went to a different Petco in hopes of getting healthy fish. They returned with a glow fish, Glowie (it glows fluorescent yellow under a black light which I refused to buy of course) and a zebra tetra, Stripe. The glow fish cost $9! They inhabited the tank for a while until two and a half weeks ago when all hell broke loose.

Every morning, the first thing I do after getting out of bed is go and check on the pleco. I admit, I've grown attached to the guy since I fed him into quite a large size. Plus, he's pretty entertaining. So I wake up, go check on the fish, and discover that the pleco is covered in ich. I check the other fish and realize that the entire tank is infested. Ich is a parasite that eats the fish. It looks like salt has been sprinkled all over the fish's body and ich lifecycles in the gravel. By the time you can see them, the damage's been done. I freak out and google in panic then run to Petco. Of course they don't have any of the medications that I had on my list. I buy something that is "organic" with no listed active ingredients. No one in the store knows what exactly to do with it, all I get is: "ohh, you have ich?" The fact that their own fish infected my tank is not registering. Run home, change water, yank the filter and dose the fish. Stripe dies the next day. Medicate again. We lose George the Second. Fork gets sick, hides behind the skull barely breathing, and for two days we watch hopelessly as it slowly dies. Wiggly's fins droop from sadness at a loss of his friend (he would swim down to him and coax him to come up for air) and he follows Fork. We're now down to Glowie and my big guy who's not eating and who stuck his head out of the water for air (plecos can survive out of the water in a crisis, which this was). All of a sudden I discover PetSmart and we go there with high hopes of finding the right medication.

PetSmart is a whole different story than Petco. Their GM is an aquatics expert, an older nerdy soft-spoken guy who carefully listened to my predicament and explained what to do step by step. I came home with top rated ich treatment, a gravel syphon and a thermometer. I syphoned the gravel, changed the water, removed the carbon pellets from the filter but still used the felt part, dropped a heater in the tank because I had to heat the water to a precise 82F to kill the parasites, attached my new thermometer, and dumped in the treatment. It was a bright green powder that turned the water dark bluish green. Then I read that the stuff causes cancer in the state of California. Great! I forgot to use gloves! So I made a large sign on the tank's lid that said: "WARNING! Cancer causing meds in tank, use gloves!" The next morning I discovered that our only remaining residents have fin rot from stress of being sick. By the time we ran to the store and returned, Glowie's tale fell off.

Fin rot is treated with tetracycline. Yep, the antibiotic that humans get. I was now dealing with two separate diseases. Even the PetSmart guy felt pity for me, he kept shaking his head and repeating "two diseases..." He explained how to juggle two completely separate meds schedules. I came home and drugged the fish. The water turned red and foamed. I spent the next four days dosing the fish with antibiotics and ich treatment and changing water on a precise schedule. By the last dose the water was deep brown and we were barely able to see the fish. Last night was the first time when I was able to put the carbon filter back in. Water's still funky, but we're able to see through it a little more. Looks like they're doing better. I put an indefinite freeze on any new fish purchases. I think I'm going to try and treat my big guy to a zucchini, plecos are herbivores.

I have a feeling that one day I have to upgrade to a 50 gallon tank to hold one large zucchini eating fish. By that point he'd better walk over there on his own, and change his own filters. I think I'm done fishing after this adventure.

*To keep with pleco owner's tradition the name of the fish is withheld from online publishing.