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Merrill Cohen, 75, bred dogs for shows, pioneer in tropical fish industry

Merrill Cohen, a pioneer in the tropical fish industry and a dog breeding expert, died of lung cancer Wednesday at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. The Pikesville resident was 75.

Mr. Cohen pursued myriad interests with a passion that enabled him to excel quickly in music, education, business, and tropical fish and dog breeding.

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"Merrill was a gifted and talented intellect in the renaissance mode," said Philip Sherman, his lifelong friend and attorney. "A man of extraordinary abilities and a rare combination of talent."

Born in Baltimore, Mr. Cohen spent his childhood on Pulaski Street, where Mr. Sherman said he and Mr. Cohen spent all day playing. Mr. Cohen's father was a sergeant with the Baltimore Police Department who loved tropical fish but wouldn't let his son have a dog.

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With interests in tropical fish and dogs developing, Mr. Cohen eagerly began another of his interests: music. He played clarinet and saxophone as a member of the City College marching band.

Mr. Cohen graduated from City College when he was 16 and immediately headed for Towson State Teachers College (now Towson University), where he earned a bachelor's degree in education. He began teaching in city public schools when he was 19.

He married Helen Dubow two years later. "Neither of our parents would let us have dogs when we were kids," Mr. Cohen said in a June 2001 interview that was published in the 2002 Yorkshire Terrier Annual. "When we got married, 53 years ago, we just went crazy with dogs."

Meanwhile, Mr. Cohen continued to play his horns to supplement his teacher's salary, including sessions with popular bandleader Stan Kenton. He also nurtured his interest in tropical fish, decorating his tanks with natural materials "rather than the typical ornaments used at the time," according to a May 2000 article about Mr. Cohen in Tropical Fish Hobbyist.

He began designing tanks for others and soon had a flourishing business. Eventually, he quit his teaching job, set aside the music and opened a store, The Aquarium, on Greenmount Avenue.

When a customer entered one day walking a Yorkshire terrier, it sparked the couple's interest in breeding dogs for competitions. Soon, they began to win prizes with their dogs at shows throughout the nation.

In 1962, Mr. Cohen sold his store to Dennis Hare, a neighbor and an employee in the store, and entered the wholesale business, eventually importing some of the first saltwater tropical species into the United States, according to Tropical Fish Hobbyist magazine.

The business grew so fast that by 1970, even with the help of his son Fred, who lives in Reisterstown, it was difficult to run. Mr. Cohen sold most of the operation, by then one of the nation's largest tropical fish wholesalers. He retained the company's pharmaceutical operations and named his new, Glen Burnie-based business Aquarium Products.

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He developed one of the first all-glass tanks, without a metal rim, and introduced a mode of transporting fish -- a plastic bag filled with half water and half oxygen. That allowed companies to pack more fish and transport them longer distances, Mr. Hare said.

"He had invented and developed any number of medications and products," Mr. Hare said.

Mr. Cohen was one of the original members of the National Aquarium's board of directors, and he became a sought-after judge for purebred dog competitions, an occupation that allowed the Cohens to travel the world.

He founded an obedience school for dogs in Randallstown that he ran until the early 1980s and whose proceeds were donated to Guide Dogs for the Blind, a charitable organization in San Rafael, Calif.

"He was a remarkable guy," Mr. Sherman said.

Mr. Cohen retired after he and his son sold their business 1999.

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Services are scheduled for today at Sol Levinson and Bros., 8900 Reisterstown Road in Pikesville.

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Cohen is survived by two grandchildren.


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