Thursday, April 19, 2012

Sleeping with the Fishes: A Tale of Guppy Love


            James got a fish tank for Christmas. We read all the directions and went to the pet store to investigate what critters might be right for our home. We came home with three guppies. James cradled the water filled plastic bag with the same care I held him as an infant. He wouldn’t let the cashier put them into another plastic bag at checkout, “They’ll be scared.” He insisted.
            On the way home we discussed names. The blue one was to be known as Jay, after James’ favorite Lego Ninjago character. He let Owen name the orange one. Owen called him Rust in memory of our late orange tabby cat Rusty. Then James bestowed upon me the honor of naming the third. The fish was a bright yellow color. I thought a Scandinavian name would be good so I suggested Thor. The boys loved the idea—even when James pointed out that Thor the guppy was a girl.
            Now maybe at that moment, I should have thought about what would happen with boys and girls swimming together in a five-gallon tank. But animal husbandry has never been my specialty. So I didn’t give it a second thought until about a month or so later when Thor seemed to be getting fatter and fatter. Apparently, guppies are the rabbits of the aquatic world.
            One evening while putting the boys to bed I noticed extra movement in the fish tank. Sure enough, there were a half-dozen or so tiny new fish in the tank. Guppies don’t lay eggs like most fish. They have give birth to a litter of guppy puppies. This is called a fry—an ironic name for a bunch of fish to be sure!
            Our family was tickled with the new development. James slept on the floor of his room so he could be closer to the fish tank. Like so many events in our lives, I announced it on Facebook.  There were many congratulations and one dose of cold water as a friend from high school mentioned the fact that guppies have a habit of eating their young. Not these guppies, I thought to myself. Not Thor, she would never eat her babies.
            But an animal must be true to her nature. By morning, there were no babies left in the tank. There were tears from my boys.
“How could she do that?” Owen asked. “How could a mother eat her babies?”
I tried to explain that you can’t get angry with an animal doing what comes naturally. You can’t be mad when a lion eats an antelope or a hawk eats a cute little bunny. They’re just acting the way God made them. Owen didn’t seem convinced.
            “Besides,” I said. “Look at the guppies. How big do you think their brains are? What’s bigger? Their brains or their stomachs?”
            I assured the boys that if Thor had babies again I would separate the adults and offspring as soon as possible. A month or so later I noticed Thor getting chunky again. I found a fish bowl and had it cleaned out and ready for the big moment.
            One Monday morning after feeding the boys and sending them upstairs to get dressed and brush their teeth I heard a whoop from upstairs.
Okay, technically it's a hurricane lamp, not a fishbowl.
            “Mom! Thor had babies!”
            Why does stuff like this always happen on Mondays? Again, there were about a half-dozen baby guppies in the tank. We scooped the adults out of the tank and placed them in the fish bowl.
            “Mom, I think you got some of the babies,” James said.
            I assured him that I hadn’t. But by the time we left for school there were three babies in the fish bowl with the adults. I hadn’t moved them with the adults—Thor just hadn’t finished giving birth when I moved her. And you thought your labor was bad. Naturally, those babies didn’t survive. But the seven in the tank thrived and got big quickly.
            I did some on-line research about when I could reintroduce the adults to the babies. Every site I visited said, “When they’re too big to be eaten”. Well that’s helpful! Can you be any more vague? So I stopped by the pet store to get advice. The very helpful sales woman suggested giving it another week or so. She also warned me that having more males than females would be very taxing to the female. “They’ll just keep going after her,” she said. Wow. Fish are pigs!
            Unfortunately, Thor didn’t make it to the reunion with her babies. I found her at the bottom of the fish bowl that afternoon. I guess having twenty or so babies in the space of a couple of months then being relentlessly pursued by two horny guppies takes its toll.
            Upon hearing of Thor’s demise, James took up the mantle of parenthood. He slept on his floor next to the fish tank. He wouldn’t leave them alone. I figured eventually he would crawl back into his bed. Instead, he made the floor beside the fish tank his nest. After a week or so, there wasn’t a pillow, blanket or stuffed animal left on his bed. For over a month he faithfully slept beside the babies, until we needed to get a bigger tank and there just wasn’t enough room on the floor. James is going to be a great dad some day. Or a great veterinarian.