Be Careful What You Wish For...10 Nov 2014
People are funny. Goldfish, not so much.
Some years back, a colleague was moving to Dublin and needed someone to take his fishtank and fish. Seeing as I had been daydreaming about a fishtank in my home office, I volunteered. I thought; "how nice it would be, to work upstairs, while in the company of fish, swimming around. How relaxing!" I built a sturdy structure into the wall, wired in sockets for the air pump and filter, and took delivery of an enormous fish tank and two goldfish. One of the things they don't really mention, is that fish tanks must be kept out of direct sunlight and mine wasn't. It didn't take long for the local algae to make themselves at home. It also didn't take long for my newfound friends to discover that I had a purpose beyond entertaining them while I stared at the computer. My purpose, such as it was, was twofold. Firstly, they delegated the feeding task to me, whenever I happened to pass by. Who says goldfish have no long-term memory? It's a sham. Whenever I walked into my newly-aquatic office, two goldfish would heft their weighty bodies to the surface, gobbling fresh air, while waiting for me to endow them with food. Of course, we know that matter cannot be created or destroyed, so all that food has to end up "somewhere"...
My second purpose was to clean the filter. Let me try to describe this function in basic terms. Their filter was comprised of two small pieces of foam. About 4cm by 10cm, and perhaps a centimetre thick. It didn't take long for this filter to become encrusted with the, uh, reprocessed food. Regularly, after first feeding them, I would have to remove the filters and take them downstairs to be cleaned. Not a trivial task, let me tell you. Fish poo can embed itself in a foam filter like nothing I've seen before or since. No matter how often I cleaned the tank, it would again fill up with algae, and the filter would be clogged. The fish would stare out at me through the mire, as if to say "Dude! Seriously! This is unhygienic." From an evolutionary perspective, goldfish are way down the pecking order. We are apparently far more evolved than them. So why is it, I spent so much time cleaning their crap out of the filter? Maybe the Intelligent Design people are right. Maybe we're just not as intelligently designed as we might think.
This is where a friend intervened. To protect the guilty, we'll call him "P". I explained my problem of the two goldfish, the filter, and the evolutionary scale. He rolled his head back in glee, clapped his hands together, and announced that I needed a garden pond. I insisted that I was trying to minimise the effort I had unduly taken upon myself, but he was having none of it. He explained that what I needed was a sufficiently big garden pond, to balance out the equilibrium, so to speak. He explained that what I needed to do was build a particularly big pond in my back garden, dump the two goldfish into the pond, along with ten or twelve new fish and some plants. The plants would eat the fish poo, and the system would remain balanced. Easy peasy! No more filters, no more algae, no more evolutionary problems. Apparently the area where I live has a high number of herons, and they can empty a pond in a day or two. In order to avoid turning my reluctant friends into bird food, I would need the pond to be deep. Very deep.
Once persuaded, and to be fair, it didn't take a huge amount of persuasion, I set about digging a hole in my garden. A deep hole. A very deep hole. One which was also kidney-shaped, and ornate. It took a lot of digging, but the more I thought about the crap-infested foam filters, the harder I drove the shovel into the ground. I was possessed! Within about a week or so, I had a decent-sized hole. I could probably have buried a full-sized human in there, and I think my neighbours were slighly concerned. I lined it with plastic, filled it with water, put some potted plants at the bottom, and left it for a week or two to equalise. After that, my two little office buddies were relocated, and were joined by 12 new-hires. I got rid of the tank, the air pump, the poo filter, and the elaborate wooden structure I had built. Harmony was restored. I could visit my pals down in the garden, and their effluent was now plant food. Needless to say, the plants thrived.
About a year later, I noticed some shimmering within the pond. Hard to discern, but there was something unnatural in the water. At first, I thought my lovely garden pond had been contaminated with insects, and I set about in full CSI mode, to investigate. I discovered that the infestation was none other than a shoal of tiny goldfish. Newborns! Naturally, I was thrilled. I had created a happy place for my fish. A place where they thought they might settle down and raise families. Then, I wondered what kind of birth control methods do fish use. I know that earthworms can control their population, but I also know that goldfish will keep eating until they explode. In other words, they're not exactly very sensible about these kinds of things. I then noticed that there were definitely more than fourteen goldfish in the pond. Panicked, I started counting fish. Unlike sheep which apparently can put you to sleep, counting fish is akin to herding cats. I stopped after I reached thirty five. Yes, my fish pond now had over thirty five fish, not counting the newest generation who were too small to count, and those that evaded counting. This was not a good development.
I immediately contacted "P" to get his advice. He came to visit. His first reaction was to rub his chin, and to repeat the epithet "Wow!" This was not the reaction I expected. "How many fish did you put in there?" he asked. I told him about the two originals and the twelve new-hires. Again his reaction left something to be desired. "Fourteen? Fourteen fish! You put fourteen fish into the pond?" Apparently I had misheard him. A happy medium was three or possibly four fish. I distinctly remember him saying ten or twelve. From now on, I will take notes. Particularly when talking to "P." I then asked if that was the cause of the, uh, "murkiness" in the water. Yes, I had also noticed that the pond was anything but clear. In fact, it was even worse than the fish tank. He looked at it, and said no, there must be something wrong with the filter. "What filter?" I asked, incredulously. His reaction was to see my look of incredulity and raise it. "You don't have a filter?" He was beside himself with disbelief. I patiently pointed out how had said there would be an equilibrium or some such, and that the fish would eat the food, the plants would eat the poo, etc, etc. Harmony. Evolution as it should be, etc. "No, no, no," he countered. "You have to have a filter. Even for four fish, you need to filter the water." His facial expression made it clear that any idiot would know this. My facial expression revealed homocidal tendencies.
So, suitably chastened, and stopping short of homicide, I drove to the garden centre. I handed over a shocking amount of money, and brought home a large contraption which now sits beside the fish pond. While the fish have shown no tendency towards birth control, the water is at least clear and free of fish poo. For my part, I now have the unenviable task of regularly hand-cleaning three very large blocks of foam, which comprise the filtration system. Each block of foam easily dwarfs the previous blocks of foam, and a menial cleaning task has now taken on the spectre of a full-time career at a waste treatment facility.
So, what have we learnt? Yes, be careful what you wish for. This is a very true statement. Sometimes improvements aren't what they seem. More importantly, we have learnt that goldfish don't have goldfish memories, but the same can't be said of humans.