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Fish Gotta Swim

Posted: October 3, 2013, 10:00 a.m. EDT


By Elizabeth Creith

If you'd asked me a couple of years ago, I'd have said that there was nowhere in a pet store where birds and fish crossed paths. I'd also have said that that's a good thing, because wherever fish and birds cross paths, somebody – usually the fish – is going to be briefly unhappy and ultimately meet his or her untimely demise. The pet store owner would be unhappy, too; given advanced murphology, the expensive fish would inevitably attract the birds.

We had a bird-fish interaction only once in the store. Once, thank you, was enough.

The bird was Peanut, the bare-eyed cockatoo. Peanut's cage was near the front of the store, and Jack, David's umbrella cockatoo, was at the back, because if they could see each other, they would both scream non-stop.

While Jack and Peanut indulged in their little shriekfest, nobody else could hear a thing; two cockatoos in full voice are loud enough to make Black Sabbath fans run for earplugs. Communication deteriorated to sign language. Do you have any idea how hard it is to say "I need an algae eater for a cold-water aquarium” in sign language?

Lung Fish
Lung fish. Thinkstock/iStock

The cages took a bit of sorting out, because the back of the store was also where the reptiles were. Birds hate and fear snakes. If Jack laid eyes on a snake he made sure that everyone for three blocks knew about it. But somehow we managed.

So, the fish. The fish was a lungfish. If you were to ask, "why did the lungfish cross the road?” the answer would be, "because he could”. They're weird little things when they come in from the supplier – about the size of a little finger, but not so thick, and equipped with four skinny, rudimentary but definite legs. They're black and eely-looking, with tiny, beady eyes.

The one we had was a return. At twelve inches long and an inch and a half in diameter, he had outgrown his home tank. His eyes were still as tiny and beady as they'd been when he was a finger-length fishlet. He also regarded tankmates as food, so we gave him a tank all to himself, which happened to be almost directly across the aisle from Peanut's cage.

That was fine, as Peanut never paid the least attention to the fish. One morning, however, Peanut started to scream. It wasn't the crescendo shriek he used while trying to outdo Jack – it was a hoarse "Ah! Ah! Ah!” and it went on and on. I arrived on the run to see Peanut standing stretched up on his cage, flapping his wings, screaming and staring at something on the floor.

The "something” was the lungfish, a black coil on the beige tile, pushing with his skinny little legs and getting nowhere fast.

"It's just the lungfish,” I said. But as far as Peanut was concerned, it was no longer a fish – it was a snake, and it was out to get him.

"Snake! Snake! Snake!” he screamed. (Okay, it was still "Ah! Ah! Ah!”) If the lungfish was after Peanut, he was the most ambitious, and optimistic, fish I'd ever seen. Even if he could get across the floor, he still had to climb the cage. 

I scooped him up and put him back in his tank. The moment he touched the water, he stopped being a snake and turned back into a fish. Peanut stopped screaming. I gave him a biscotti to comfort him and put a heavy glass lid on the tank.

Behind the glass, the lungfish stared with tiny, beady eyes at Peanut and drooled. Peanut ignored him. Who panics about a fish, right?

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