Caught Falling in Love Across the Web of Life

I made the mistake of reading an article in the May issue of The Atlantic called, “How Animals Think.” The author, Alison Gopnik, explores how animals are viewed differently through the “ladder of nature” lens, where humans sit at the top, versus through the “web of life,” where humans are just part of a network. I usually try to avoid reading those types of articles because I am far too empathetic toward anything with eyes and I fear it will turn me into an ethical vegan. That would just add stress to my life because I already have so many dietary issues that I know I don’t enjoy having to put considerable thought into what I’m going to eat. I also fear that bitter memories of past relationships ending will be dredged up when I think about the cognitive ability of animals. But, I read the article and am now revisiting my own wishful thoughts that the emotions I’ve experienced in relationships with animals might be mutual. I have consciously made the effort to avoid such childish thoughts – ever since 2008.

It has been almost seven and a half years since my last love affair with an animal. His name was Picasso and he was a bubble-eyed goldfish. I find myself still thinking of him daily – mostly because I’m using his photo for the top banner of this blog. My heart still pings when I check in at and I see his smiling face. I sincerely believed he was smiling when I took that photo and wanted to believe that I made him as happy as he made me. I should have known better than to fall in love with Picasso because I have not had a good track record when it comes to being involved with fish.

My rocky aquatic relationship road started when I was around nine years old. I was at a picnic by a lake with my grandpa, Papa Don. For some reason he had a cup full of minnows and asked if I wanted them as pets. I was absolutely thrilled at the idea of having my very own pets to care for. The only animals in my life at that point were the feral cats that populated our farm. While I appreciated the tough “mama cat” or “tom cat” demeanor they all had, it didn’t provide me with the best pet experience. Our “pets” when I was growing up did things like: biting me; giving birth up in a tree so that the newborns dropped to their death about ten feet below; slaughtering their babies and scattering them around the yard . . .  So it seemed to me that fish would be a pretty enjoyable pet to have because they didn’t have teeth and couldn’t climb trees.

We poured the minnows from Papa Don into a glass bowl at home. We added plenty of hard water to the bowl so that they would have lots of area to swim. I smiled  as I watched my new pets swim around and around. I felt motherly pride for my new fishies—all seven or eight of them (they didn’t hold still long enough for me to know for sure how many I had). I watched the gang swim around and “kiss” the water.  After I ate supper it occurred to me that my pets were probably hungry. I realized that I had no idea what minnows ate. I tried to think of what might be found in a lake. I thought of algae but I didn’t have access to any so I tossed some grass in the bowl for them to nibble on. I planned on keeping my eye open for little bugs scampering through the house that I could toss in there for them to eat. I said good-night to my little cuties and as I fell asleep I thought about what adorable pet names I should give to all of them: Spot, Fido, Tiger, Spike . . . When I woke up the next morning I excitedly ran downstairs to say hello to my new pets. Every single one of them was floating belly up in the bowl. I said, “That stinks” (I was nine and didn’t swear so much back then). I decided that fish were terrible pets.

That traumatic experience with fish pets was blocked out of my memory until my daughter was almost three and begged me and her dad for a fish. So, I stopped at a pet shop and asked all kinds of questions and finally learned that you can’t just drop a fish in hard water and feed it grass – who knew? I decided that it would be fun for my daughter to have a fish as a pet and I bought all of the proper accessories. We gave her a beta goldfish on her third birthday and she was thrilled. My daughter named the fish “Cinderella Do Me.” I suggested that she call it Cinderella, for short, and we actually managed to keep it alive for almost a year. It suddenly went belly up one day, and we had no idea why. My daughter was absolutely devastated and the funeral was so sad. After Cinderella’s funeral my two and a half year-old son pulled me aside and said, “Uh, what happens if you feed a fish too much?”  Unaware of why he was asking the question I told him that the fish would probably get sick and die. My son’s eyes opened wide and he took off running. I caught up to him and asked if he “helped” feed Cinderella even though it was my daughter’s job to feed her fish. His answer was, “Maybe.” But I suspect the actual answer was, “Yes.” After the horribly sad days that followed the passing of Cinderella, I swore we would never have another fish for a pet ever again.

Then, for my son’s eighth birthday a friend gave him a frog aquarium with a coupon for free tadpoles that he could watch grow into frogs in his aquarium. I know that tadpoles are not fish, but I immediately had flashbacks of my minnow gang and Cinderella, and felt great concern over how the aquatic experience would go for my son. We waited until that summer to order the tadpoles so that they wouldn’t freeze in the Minnesota mail. One of the two tadpoles arrived dead anyway. My son was devastated (even though he had never even known the tadpole), so he held a funeral for it. The funeral procession was led by my son on his bike. He held the tadpole as he drove, followed by my daughter on her bike, followed by our dog, Ricky, who was followed by our dog, Gabby. It was really touching. The surviving tadpole, “Honey Nut” also died soon after and it was even more devastating because my son “knew” him.  Then we received a tadpole in the mail to replace the one that had arrived dead. My son named it “Cheerios” and kept this one alive for an impressive amount of time – to the point where it was starting to form little legs. That summer, we left for a trip to the east coast, and unfortunately for my mom, we asked her to tadpole sit. She did a great job of caring for it, and I am sure that she didn’t do anything wrong – it was just time for our aquatic pet to die. So it died, on her watch.

After the traumatic passing of Cheerios I swore that our family would never have another fish – or anything that resembled a fish – as a pet. Being able to watch them wiggle around in their environment for a day was the best I felt we could ever hope for. There was no way I would allow our family to invest any more love in an aquatic pet . . . but then I met Picasso.

Picasso was the cutest fish I have ever seen.  My daughter received him from a Secret Santa on her yearbook staff back in December 2008.  I was planning on picking my daughter up at school after her Christmas party, but before I got there she called and asked if I could bring a fish bowl. Apparently the bowl that her Secret Santa had the fish in broke while it was in her car that was parked outside in below freezing temperatures. So Santa emptied a Tupperware container that had candy in it and put the fish in there along with fish tank water that the yearbook advisor had on hand and she gave it to my daughter. I was at Walmart when my daughter called so I bought fish food, water drops, and a glass bowl to put the fish in. I swore all the way to the high school as I wondered why someone would think it was a nice idea to give someone a fish as a gift. I met my daughter in the yearbook room and she said, “This is Picasso.” I looked down into the Tupperware bowl at a googly-eyed fish. We gazed into each others’ big eyes and it was love at first sight. His eyes bugged out and one of them was severely crooked; hence, the name my daughter gave him.  We transferred Picasso to the glass bowl and headed home.

At home my daughter transferred Picasso to Cinderella’s old fish bowl where we watched him swim around all night. We couldn’t help but smile as he circled around the bowl. He seemed like such a happy fish despite the trauma he endured in Secret Santa’s car. We took lots of photos of our new pet to capture his first day with us. Since he survived the cold weather and the broken bowl in Santa’s car I was sure he was a very tough fish that would be with us for a long time.

Once I gazed into his compassionate eyes, I welcomed Picasso’s presence. Our dog, Ricky, had died a few months earlier and our dog, Gabby, four years before that. I missed the dogs terribly because I used to spend a lot of time talking to them every day (and Ricky actually talked back). Once Ricky was gone, my days at home became terribly long and lonely. So, Picasso became my new confidant. I believed he enjoyed listening to me.  He would stand on his tail fin and dance around when I talked to him. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Picasso and his googly eyes wiggle around.  And I believed Picasso enjoyed seeing my googly eyes wiggle around as I leaned into the bowl and talked to him. He was the perfect remedy for my loneliness and I loved him with all my heart – for ten days. I tearfully said, “Good-bye,” as we flushed my soul mate down the toilet.

Chief Seattle is credited with saying: “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” I wish this was true, and that in his own way, Picasso experienced my intense love for him through our connection . . .  But then I wish it wasn’t true, because I still eat fish sticks.

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© 2016 by Julie Ryan. All rights reserved
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