When my son was very small, long before we suspected he was autistic, he had one word- "fish", not pronounced perfectly but always said with great excitement. Whenever we were visiting the pet store, we would park the shopping cart in front of the fish tanks, his face would light up and the word would come- "ish, ish" over and over again. Only a carefully planned diversion would allow us to remove him from the fish section of the store without incident. Fast forward about eighteen months into the future, and we have made our way to the Childhood Development and Rehabilitation Center of the local hospital. Gabriel has just turned three less than two weeks before, and he is suffering from a sudden emergence of anxiety. He screams as we head onto the elevator, his body wrapped around mine, his little fingers digging into the back of my neck. He won't let me put him down, and I struggle to carry him through the seemingly endless halls. Very tall and muscular, he weighs in at 48 pounds, and I am the only one who is allowed to carry him.
We finally arrive in the waiting area that is shared by the radiology department. I note the warmly dressed children, their heads free of hair, clutching comfort objects and looking frightened. It is at this precise moment, that the absudity of my own fears for my perfectly healthy, happy child is fully realized. He is not in mortal danger. Everything else seems completely inconsequential to me then, and I begin to relax. I notice then that he has also started to relax. His eyes have searched the room and are now transfixed on a large saltwater aquarium. All trace of the frightened, incosolable child I lugged into the room with my last effort are gone. Gabriel has found fish! He is visibly excited and stimming noisily. He points to one fish and then another, and then something amazing happens- he says two things he has never said before, "Hello, fish!" and "Look at the fish!" It is at this moment that my husband and I decide that we must buy our son his own aquarium.
Months pass, and we have finally settled into our new home and have not forgotten our promise to buy our son a fish tank. Years ago, as a college student, I kept tropical fish, so I feel somewhat competent and yet apprehensive at this new venture. Fish are not easy. They get sick and die- sometimes without warning. Once a tank is well established, things generally run more smoothly, but it is an unfortunate truth that there are usually many casualties in the struggle. Still, I have commited myself to this project, and I set about researching the ins and outs and ups and downs of keeping fish. I've been out of the loop for a while and assume that there is new information to be had. I am not disappointed.
After visiting just two or three websites, and being assured that keeping fish can be a very relaxing hobby, I am more uncertain than I was before I started the process. Gone are the days of the simple straightforward recommendations written by fish experts who all seemed to share a similar view of the best fish keeping strategies. - 1. put gravel in your tank 2. fill with water 3. add water conditioner 4. add fish 5. feed fish twice a day 6. do partial water changes every two weeks. This is the information age, and anyone and everyone who has ever kept fish has an opinion about the best way to do things. Some people seem to be quite concerned about fish rights- insisting that inexpensive fish should not be sacrificed to make the aquarium habitable by the more expensive variety. Fish deserve respect. They are living creatures and should not be used as expendable water conditioners. Others insist that cycling a tank with fish is the best way to establish a viable habitat, and that sacrifices must be made for the greater good. Some people claim that the ph of the water must be adapted to fit the native habitat of the fish. Others suggest that it is better to acclimate the fish to the existing water ph. Then there is the water change issue- how much and how often? Suggestions range from a 10% water change twice a week to a 25% water change once a month. Some people say that frequent water changes are crucial to maintaining high water quality while others insist that if water changes are too frequent they place undue stress on the fish and can lead to disease and even death (the very things you are trying to avoid by making water changes). Just doing a search over a small number of websites, I discovered so many contradictions as to make me regret doing any research at all, and this was all before I discovered the Tropical Fish Forums.
People love their fish, and they are passionate about them. They are always trying to find ways to improve the lives of their fish, and are very good about sharing their homegrown fish cure remedies. They have different philosophies about fish, and different beliefs about what is best for them. People who are newcomers to the world of fish keeping are bound to be confused and even a little scared, but the fact of the matter remains, that there is no one good way of doing things that seems to be right for all fish or for all keepers. Using scientifically designed testing kits can be a good way to monitor water conditions, but these kits vary in reliability, and there doesn't seem to be any good substitute for vigilance- always being aware of changes in your fish's appearance and behavior that might indicate a problem. The bottom line seems to be getting to know your child- I mean your fish- and trying to do what is right for them, sometimes even in spite of advice from other well-intentioned keepers from experts in the field. This is not and easy job, but none of the best things and life usually are.