A relationship goes belly up

At the risk of ticking off the fish crowd, let me say that I don't recommend fish as pets unless you're looking for an animal that's cold, indifferent and adds absolutely nothing to your life -- in which case you should probably get a cat.

That business about ticking off the fish crowd is not said lightly, either.


A few weeks ago, for instance, there appeared in this space a story about a gang of thuggish raccoons that had been ravaging the garbage cans outside my house.

Despite the calm and reasoned slant of the column -- I didn't like what the raccoons were doing, but I never advocated grabbing a .22 or anything -- a few nuts wrote in to complain that I was anti-raccoon.


One psycho (a woman from Rockford, Ill., of all places) even left a voice mail message that said: "Just what is it about animals that you don't like?"

And I thought: Wha-a-a? Me?

The man who's had, what, 16,000 dogs in his career? The man who once shared a house with a 175-pound St. Bernard named Holmes who did nothing but slobber on his girlfriend, and when the girlfriend said "Look, either the dog goes or I go" said "What's your friend Arleen's number again?"

Besides, with a name like Cowherd, how could you not like animals?

The point is, we'll probably take the same kind of flak from the fish people, who are notoriously sensitive anyway and generally exhibit the same sense of humor displayed during the Salem witch trials.

Anyway, if we can just get on with it, this observation about fish being lousy pets did not come overnight.

Rather it came from eight months of studying the goldfish who lives in a fish tank in my kitchen.

And after all this time, my conclusion is: This might be the dullest animal God ever put on this Earth.


Basically, all this fish does is swim to the bottom of his fish tank and hang out there.

Visitors to our house -- once they get past the concertina wire and metal detectors in the foyer -- will often stare at the fish for several moments and remark: "Is he, um . . . dead?"

My answer is always: It depends on your definition of dead.

If by dead you mean clinically dead -- as in not breathing anymore, as in failing to exhibit any vital signs -- then, no, he's not dead.

But if you mean dead as a synonym for listless -- or spiritually dead, a deadness of the soul -- then, yes, he is very much dead.

To give you an idea of the affection we feel for this fish, he doesn't even have a name.


The kids were supposed to name the fish when we first got him. But then they went off to watch "Step by Step" or assault each LTC other with hockey sticks or whatever. And the fish remained unnamed.

So basically everyone just refers to him as "the fish." As in: "Did anyone feed the fish?"

I know, I know . . . it sounds so impersonal.

Part of this seeming lack of warmth comes from the checkered history we've had with fish over the years.

If my arithmetic serves, this is the sixth fish we've had in the past 36 months.

The five previous fish were all greeted warmly upon their arrival, but all soon developed an annoying habit.


They all tended to, well . . . die. Even though we fed them enough, changed the water, changed the filter, etc. You talk about the Sword of Damocles hanging over your head.

As you can imagine, this puts a bit of a strain on any relationship with a pet -- when the animal just up and croaks on you.

There you are whispering sweet nothings to the fish and making goofy faces at him and waving good night.

Then the next morning you come downstairs and the fish is floating belly-up next to the fake coral.

You don't think that makes you gun-shy about rushing into a new relationship with an animal? I assure you it definitely does.

Even now, after eight months, I'll find myself walking past the fish tank thinking: "Y'know, you really ought to say something to the poor little fella. Or just knock on the glass -- at least let him know you care."


But then I'll think: "Nah, what's the use? I could be wrapping that little guy in newspaper and pitching him in the garbage in a couple hours."

I know that's a bad attitude to take.

But that's the way I feel.