We've all seen 'em, those colorful fish in tiny cups all lined up on the pet store shelves. The containers look like little clear cups with lids -- there's a reason for that -- supporting a life form. The Betta fish (Betta splendens) inside floats languidly or swims about in a futile effort to find a way out. The cups are easily accessible for kids to play with. Toddlers who escape their mother's grasp momentarily then drop the cups on the floor; teenagers who shake the cups for fun and the overly curious who peek inside for a better look and in so doing scare the daylights out of the fish; are all real dangers to these little guys.
We've all asked 'em, the pet store staff who assure us these fish like living in little cups. Out of concern for their well-being, we ask a pet store clerk why the small cups, and are told time and again some version of the following: they live in mud puddles; they live in the puddled water inside hoof prints of water buffaloes in Asia; they like living in tiny areas; they don't swim much so it's better for them to be in a confined space; they will kill any other fish they come in contact with so they have to be isolated.
Don't buy the lie.
A few years ago I sued the City of West Palm Beach for not allowing protesters to tell the truth about the origins of puppies in pet stores and I asked you not to buy the lie that the puppies all come from "reputable breeders."
Now I am asking again, don't buy the lie about these fish either. I admit it. I gave in to my sympathetic impulses and bought one. I shouldn't have done it because all I did was create a market for them. But I felt so sorry for them that I decided to liberate one of them. The lucky guy, a blue double-tail I call Fuego (blue=sapphire=fire=fuego), has been with me for about a year now; the king of his own five gallon tank. But lately, he's not been feeling too well. I returned from a ten day absence to find him listless and lying on his side. Panicked, I ran to the computer to find out what I could do for him. In researching his condition I have learned quite a bit about these fascinating fish that made me so angry about how the pet stores are deceiving us, that I started an online petition to get the big three pet stores (Petland, Petco and Pet Supermarket) to stop buying them from suppliers who insist on shipping and housing them in those tiny cups.
For example, I learned that many of them die in those little cups from lack of oxygen, diseases brought on by elevated nitrates in the water from their own waste, depression and stress. And although they have been seen in puddles, the truth is they live in shallow streams, ponds and rice paddies in Asia where the water is kept at a warm 75 degrees and oxygen is plentiful. If they are in puddles, it's not by choice, it's because the pond they were in evaporated and they are waiting for rain so they can move on.
A while back there was a craze involving Betta fish where they were being sold in water vases with a plant on top. The idea was the Betta would eat the roots of the plant and survive with little or no work on the part of the owner. Thankfully, it was a passing fad but millions of those little guys died because Betta are omnivores who eat mostly insects and insect larvae in the wild. So while they may eat the roots of a plant to survive (what choice did they have?), they won't thrive because it doesn't provide them the nutrients they need. Also, Betta fish are labyrinth fishes, which mean they take their oxygen from the surface of the water, not the water itself. Since they were unable to get to the surface because the plant was in the way, they couldn't get the oxygen they needed. Finally, Betta fish need to be kept in a pristine environment. Betta experts recommend a 20% water change every week. Those vases did not lend themselves to that because again, the plant was in the way. All of the misinformation about the fish allayed the concerns voiced by those who didn't think it was such a good idea.
But the myths continue, Bettas are not happy and healthy in those little cups. Intelligent, comical and social, these fish become depressed if not stimulated, and will die of starvation because they don't eat when they are depressed. Not only that, female Bettas can be kept together, and male Bettas can be kept in community tanks as long as there are no other male Bettas in them. So all of the reasons we are told about why they are kept in those tiny cups are just, well, lies.
I can attest to the fact that these fish are funny little creatures. Fuego certainly is a character. He sleeps on his side on a leaf or rock at night. He "plays dead" when he thinks I am not paying enough attention to him. He actually floats on his side and when I check on him to see if he's dead, he makes a mad dash around the tank as if to say, "Gotcha again!"
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals requests we don’t buy these fish. I won’t go that far. I am saying don't buy the lie. I am happy to have saved at least one fish from the misery of a lonely life in the pet store. But if we get our act together enough to speak as one voice and ask the pet stores to stop getting them from suppliers who keep them in tiny cups for the convenience of the pet store, maybe we can help them to have better Betta lives.
To sign the petition, visit Change.org.
Image credit: Tobias Akerboom (at hutmeelz)