How to keep a goldfish alive ... no, really. How?

www.jeffvrabel.comAugust 26, 2013 

Welp, we're trying again with the fish.

Over the years, our house has had a tenuous relationship with fish care, although here I use the word "tenuous" when the fish might use a word like "lethal," if fish could communicate, which ours cannot, because if they could they would be sending messages to Petco and PetSmart that said things like "VRABEL HOUSE BAD TANK KILLING MACHINE AVOID GLUB GLUB." No, I'm not sure how goldfish would get such messages to their intended recipients either, but I imagine it would involve an awful lot of hopping up and down on the keyboard.

Of course you expect a certain level of impermanence when you buy fish, when you enter into that binding, lifelong contract that says "I have been tricked into coming to PetSmart, and I'll be damned if we're leaving here with a kitten." That's why we got fish, because they're some of the fun of pet ownership with almost none of the effort, because dogs whiz on floors and I already have a 2-year-old for that, because cats make parts of my respiratory system stop working (for instance, all the parts) and because snakes are out of the question for obvious reasons, not the least of which is that they might be a horcrux. The only downside with fish is the survival rate; in my experience, goldfish last about as long as a stick of Juicy Fruit, although of course they taste totally different.

Part of the problem, I find, is that fish tanks require all sorts of specialized effort, such as cleaning. And part of the problem is that when we do clean the tank, all the fish die. This last part is true: We recently cleaned the whole tank, the whole thing, and apparently added some water-cleaning chemical that cleaned the water largely by killing all the animals that were in it. We're really not sure what went wrong; there have been a lot of crazy accusations about "Who added what" and "Was this cleaning product expired?" and "Is two drops different from two quarts?" but we've all agreed to move on.

The stories go on like this. Once, and by "once" I mean "last week," one of our fish leapt from the safety of his tank to the decided non-safety of the carpet around the tank, exhibiting a pretty serious failure to understand what his gills were for. This episode proved to be slightly traumatic for my 9-year-old, as well as kind of a problem for the Dustbuster.

Oh, also when I was 8 I had a goldfish who, in the middle of a tank-leaning, leapt in one graceful swan-like motion from his bowl directly down into the garbage disposal like Boba Fett plunging into the Sarlacc Pit, and that is not something you quickly forget, even after many years of fish-centered therapy sessions. (I've had a light fear of garbage disposals ever since, especially since 1994, when my college roommates and I discovered, almost 70 percent accidentally, that garbage disposals are perfectly capable of liquefying a shot glass.)

Yet because we are eternal optimists who will succumb to the wishes of a 9-year-old with shocking efficiency, we're trying again. Last weekend my wife and oldest son returned to PetSmart, where due to catastrophic security failures we are still allowed to shop, and picked up a Ziploc baggie filled with a bunch more fish. They also got a snail, which is my early pick for Worst Pet Ever, even worse than the horcrux-snake. Because if you thought cats did nothing, if you thought snakes just kind of sat there, those are both furious Coke-and-Red-Bull-fueled whirligigs of activity compared with snails, which do nothing, and slowly. There was a fairly hilarious discussion here last week about whether the snail was alive or dead, and how long it would take for any of us would notice if he were. (Average guess: four months.)

And to you, new fish, I say huzzah and good luck! You've got a bunch of friends in there now, and some new plants, and even a fresh new filter, which appears to be a bag full of blue rocks to me, but whatever. And to the old fish, I make this solemn vow: We will never, ever try to clean your tank again.

Jeff Vrabel could really go for some blackened grouper right about now. Follow him at and read more at

The Island Packet is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service