I have heard so many people talk about how they learned things from animals that it’s almost become a cliché. “I learned about patience and loyalty from my dog,” some say, or, “My cat taught me the value of servitude and the discipline of getting up at the crack of dawn because she won’t shut up ‘cause she’s hungry and even though I leave dry food out for her she ….”
But I digress.
I never thought much of these pithy platitudes. I didn’t have to. Of course animals teach us things. They are superior to us in so many ways. The dolphin can swim faster than the swiftest Olympiad, the chimpanzee is stronger than Schwarzenegger in his finest hour; and the spider can weave a complex home that can withstand hurricane-force winds, a feat even the best builders of houses couldn’t do before Hurricane Andrew forced everyone to come up with new standards.
So naturally, if we really stop and look hard enough, we will see that animals can teach us things we never dreamed. But I never stopped to look hard enough. I believed in the catholicity of the fact that animals teach us important lessons. My awareness of this insight that everyone else seemed to have gotten long ago came to me a few nights ago when my little blue fish leapt out of his tank.
I will confess here, knowing I will draw criticisms from all sides. The criticism is well-deserved, it is hypocritical of me to purchase a Betta fish from a pet store after screaming from the rooftops for years about how one should never buy a puppy from a pet store no matter how forlorn he looks because you are only perpetuating the business. I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard “but I rescued him” from the pet store from people who truly believe they did just that. I would roll my eyes and give them a “talk to the hand” gesture that clearly told them I wasn’t buying it and they were terrible people.
So my buying a Betta fish because he looked sad and lonely in that little cup is, of course, the same principle. But I ask that you forgive this transgression since I truly want to get to what he taught me. Yes, he taught me a lesson; this fish that weighs less than an ounce and is an inch or so long at best.
I brought him home, named him Fuego, and put him in a five-gallon tank, much larger than he needed but I was “rescuing” him after all. But watching him languish in that tank day after day made me feel bad for him, so I researched the species to see what compatible fish I could put in with him. I tried a small goldfish, but within a day the goldfish commited suicide by jumping out of the tank. The pet store told me it was not suicide, but murder. The Betta is a bully. That’s why they have to be alone, she informed me.
But I didn’t like that answer so I made up a new one. Bettas get along with something, don’t they? After the goldfish incident was repeated thrice, however, I gave up. The third fish was a minnow. I dropped him in the tank and Fuego, looked at me as if to say “this is not a female betta” and tossed the minnow to his death a day later.
Fuego builds gorgeous bubble nests. He works on them all day long. I am told that this means he is a happy, healthy Betta who wants a mate. But I am also told that if he is given a mate, he will kill her soon after mating. I’m done with setting up fish to be murdered so I’m not getting him a mate.
One day, I happened to look in the tank and didn’t see him. Mildy curious, I searched the tank but to no avail. Imagine my panic when I found him flopping on the table next to his tank. I tried to pick him up but, to my horror, he slipped out of my hand and onto the floor. I gently picked him up and laid him back in his tank. He was alive, but very much in shock.
He lay on the bottom of his tank for a whole day, then got up and went back to business as usual.
And here it is, the big finish, the lesson. My Betta taught me that no matter how much it seems that you won’t get your prize, your ship won’t come in, you will never get what you know you want, keep trying, because in this bubble nest we call life, you just never know and you should always be prepared.
And I am floored (you will forgive the pun) that this tiny being, so small that he could fit in the palm of a child’s hand, could sustain a fall from a table three-feet high, hit the tile, and survive. He took a day to brood and recover, and he’s back to building bubble nests. Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned is not to be so judgmental and angry at the people who buy puppies from pet stores because they simply could not resist. I get it now. I simply could not resist.
As for Fuego, he will have to remain a bachelor until his time on Earth is through. Or not. I just hope I don’t come across a sad and lonely female Betta. So, keep builidng those bubble nests, Fuego, keep your dream alive.
Image credit: Tobias Akerboom (at hutmeelz)