The Dilemma of Rescuing Fish

“rescue” can mean different things to different people, and is not always so black-and-white.


Long time no see!

A trend in the fish keeping community has caught my attention, one that has a few potential problems in it that I think should be discussed. Let’s start at the beginning. Everyone in the aquarium hobby I think has experienced at one time or another, a store that sells large quantities of fish and doesn’t do a very good job of keeping them, ensuring they are healthy and well cared for, etc. Keeping in line with my own aquarium keeping interests, I will talk specifically here of the betta fish.

Most often in pet stores betta are kept in very small containers, and as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, sometimes their water quality is left to become very poor in those containers, or they are not fed as they should be, or they are caused unnecessary stress, etc. The bottom line is this: some places, but certainly not all, take very poor care of what the pet industry has long looked at as a cheap, expendable pets. Betta, because the males must be kept separate and they live somewhat longer than other types of fish in poor water quality with the aid of a labyrinth organ, often get the very shortest end of the stick. In short, the lower quality fish that are cheap to produce and sell are not worth the trouble to care for at some stores.

This has, understandably, led to fish lovers and betta lovers everywhere embarking on rescue missions to save the fish from their dismal life on a shelf. This is no doubt admirable. The first step in creating change is to become aware of a problem in the industry, and behavior like this signals that people are becoming increasingly aware of bad pet store practices. However, as I mentioned, this is where some grey areas begin.

I think it’s safe to say that the main goal of said rescuers is to save the lives of individual fish. Thinking bigger picture, I hope the goal is also to save all the fish from being subjected to such lazy care and fish keeping practices.

The problem is this, a large percent of people looking to rescue bettas, purchase the sick or unhealthy fish from the stores in order to better care for them.

This is immediately gratifying, in that the fish left without care can be taken home at once and their conditions can be improved. However, on the flipside, it must be mentioned that the act of purchasing a sick fish, has also given money directly to the store that is using bad practices.

Of course, some rescuers have some harsh words for a store, or post somewhere about how they rescued, but I hope I’m not being too skeptical in thinking that the words of paying individual customers are not going to stop a store from keeping fish the way they do, after all it worked—they sold the fish without taking care of it and made a profit. And while spreading the word of how fish are kept in bad conditions is helpful, it also encourages more people to do the same, to go out and buy more fish from pet stores using bad practices, subsequently bringing more and more money into the stores, because they do use bad practices. In the world of business where numbers are sometimes more important than individual voices, this can potentially only make the problem of pet stores incorrectly keeping fish even worse.

So what’s the answer? I suppose it depends on the person. In one school of thought, (school, ha fish pun, maybe…) it’s ok to buy sick and unhealthy fish, because letting fish die while we wait for the industry to change is cruel to the fish in the stores now. In another, the best thing to do is stop buying unhealthy fish altogether and force businesses to keep them healthy, or not make any sales at all. Though I think this gets complicated when thinking of the general public being educated enough on fish to even know accurately the difference between a healthy and an unhealthy fish. I have seen before someone mistake a healthy crowntail for a betta with ripped fins for example.

It seems that a good option would be to approach stores that have unhealthy fish and try and get them to surrender the fish. This means trying to convince them that the fish they’re keeping are unhealthy for one (you should have researched facts) will probably not sell in that condition two (which is tricky, some places know real fish people won’t buy sick fish, some know people buy sick fish all the time and don’t care) and that the fish will soon die if it is kept in its environment three, resulting in a total loss of profit anyway (this is pretty simple if the facts are clear). With a little bit of luck, and trust in the goodness of our fellow man or woman, stores with unhealthy fish will hopefully surrender dying fish to those willing to take them.

The effort of anyone with a heart to rescue should be appreciated of course, but the term “rescue” shouldn’t really be thrown around in all cases. It will take a lot to permanently change the way the stores look at fish. Hopefully it can be done. Having fish easily available to the public is a great way to foster interest in the hobby that deserves growth and expansion in America. Getting stores to also encourage only proper fish keeping practices and sell only suitable tanks and equipment, while providing correct information, well, that’s a whole ‘nother article.

Of course, anyone interested in the moral questions of buying/rescuing fish and other ways they can help create change for all fish for the better, should do as much research as they can. They should reach out to those that have a greater impact on the fish keeping community, and any who just love animals or want to help. Extreme practices are hardly ever the right choice, but there are meaningful ways that change can be created in a positive way from individuals working together to give a voice to an animal without one that is often forgotten.

Betta, and all fish, can make wonderful, loving pets in the right homes. They deserve a chance to get there safely. The questions and issues with buying and rescuing betta fish are never black and white, and people all have their own opinions. I simply wish to raise some questions, offer different views, and get people thinking a little more about what impact their well-intended actions may be having.

One thing is for sure, with a community full of so many good-hearted, determined pet lovers, the future of the aquarium hobby, and the fish involved, will be even better with time.


Until next time, love from me and Luxe (my betta)

A betta’s story: Spiro

In my years in the hobby I have had several fish that helped me learn the right way to keep fish and aquariums. Unfortunately, at the start there was one betta who helped me learn all the wrongs ways to do it. His name was Spiro. I want to take a moment to highlight his incredible, brief life and appreciate him here.

(To not get in trouble here, I’m going to refer to a store as Walmo but I think it’s fairly clear what I refer to.)

Spiro came from a Walmo. To those who study and are passionate about fish, this is the first bad sign. While I don’t want to get too into my opinions and feelings on the issue, the particular Walmo where I found him did not have any other live fish, so it seemed to me there was no required knowledgeable fish person there to care for the bettas. They were on a shelf in cups, as is common practice and never once did I see an employee feeding them or nearby to ask questions or anything of the sort. I stopped in regularly for quite a while and slowly all but two of the bettas were sold off. The remaining two continued to have water that looked dirtier and dirtier, with visible excrement building up in their cups.

Finally, I felt I had researched bettas enough and I bought a 1 gallon tank. It was the first betta I was going to keep since I was a child, and since I decided this was a hobby I wanted to seriously pursue. I have touched in a previous post, why I ended up choosing a 1 gallon. (It was what got me thinking and made me want to move a spotlight on this particular betta.) Basically the situation was this; I was in a college dorm and thought to change the water I would have to have a tank I could carry full of water, down the hall to the communal bathroom and back. It had to fit on the small desk in my room, the only furniture of mine that fit in the space besides my actual bed (it was one of the ‘freshman only’ pathetically cramped and small dorms). I lived in a remote place where there were no “pet” stores. The nearest Walmo was a little over half an hour drive and short of ordering things online, which was not something I’d ever really thought of, Walmo was it.

On a side note that is why I’m not necessarily against Walmo selling fish. Whoa don’t stab me yet fish lovers. I DO feel that if they are going to sell fish they need to adhere to ethical standards of keeping and selling them and need to have a required fish keeper on staff that is knowledgeable. Like all places that sell fish I think they need to cut out some of the unethical fish products that they sell alongside the fish and they need to provide correct information to all buyers. That would be the dream anyway. I say I’m not totally against them selling just because there are Walmos everywhere. And I know what it’s like to fall in love with a hobby and not have accessible resources to get involved. This is a hobby that will only survive if it continues to grow and gain participants. I want every person interested to be able to get their hands on aquarium supplies and fish, BUT like in any pet retailer I don’t it should be at the cost of the health and happiness of the fish.  I do think it’s a bit ridiculous that a store that sells no other animals and is not a “pet store” would sell a pet with no special conditions, just like they were another nonliving item. I have even heard stories that they don’t so much as feed the fish in the store, much less change their water. They just put them out and they either are bought or they die (or expire perhaps is how they think of it in grocery terms). That is just what I’ve heard of course, I have no personal proof other than what I’ve seen. To think fish are given a fate to either starve to death, or die from burning in their own ammonia if not sold is quite sad. I did notice that the water never seemed clearer or changed and looked progressively worse as I visited my local Walmo. There were sick fish and an occasional dead fish. I don’t know what happened to those as one day they were just gone.

Another side note, don’t dump food in fish cups at your Walmo after reading this. I will get into it more later but excessive feeding without water changes will kill them quicker with more ammonia being produced than starvation will. Both are cruel and it does no better.

ANYWAY back on topic, this is where I went wrong with Spiro. I went to Walmo and he was one of two bettas left. This means they had been there the longest and were the last survivors. The quality of their water was therefore extremely bad. He was a veil tail, the most common and as far as I know, easiest to breed tail type. He was a bright, clean red with just a little iridescence to his scales. He was on the left and on the right was a pale orangey male veil tail. I was drawn to his bright color and after nearly crying because I felt leaving the last betta there alone was a death sentence, I brought Spiro home and named him, after a dragon video game character.

Spiro ate a little for me and I waited a couple days then took him to my college and set him up in his new one gallon. I had black rocks as the substance and a few live plants (though they died shortly after he did). To begin with Spiro seemed extremely happy. He swam laps around, seemingly thoroughly enjoying being out of his small cup. He looked at everything and every time I would open my laptop on my desk he seemed to take it as a threat. He would flare up and do his little war dance until he ran me off. He built a decent bubble nest and overall seemed quite content, if not grumpy.

Another short side note: I have heard a superstition that red colored bettas are more aggressive. Thoughts?

The main thing I did wrong was that I did 100% water changes every freakin day. I did this because some extremists I found online while trying to learn reputable information wrote that 1 gallons were extremely cruel and a betta would die if not changed every day. Looking back I should’ve seen it as extremist considering he’d survived weeks in a tiny cup at Walmo. But I had just come back from crashing an awful, awful goldfish tank in the worst way and was determined to follow the internet and learn the secrets of serious fish keeping.

As I’ve said in earlier posts there’s a couple of reasons why those water changes killed Spiro. After being in terrible water that built up high ammonia, nitrate and nitrite levels (all the bad stuff from fish breathing and pooping in the water) for a long time, going to completely fresh water every single day was no doubt too much of a shock for poor Spiro. Also he went from being ignored in a small cup to being in a tank with a light and a person and being moved around and taken in an out for water changes constantly and it no doubt mentally stressed him out. Also, doing so frequent changes meant it was hard to match the temperature and other water parameters, which was more fluctuation than he’d probably ever had. All and all it was just too much. He got tightly clamped fins and became lethargic, then within the week died.

I was devastated. I felt the internet had let me down, and I had let him down, and that even with trying my best to research, there was no way for the average person to get into the hobby successfully without some professional help or experience. I, of course, later found all the other articles explaining shock and stress with other theories of way too little water changes and never 100%. With such a small tank, I ended up developing my own method of keeping a 1 gallon and tried again with a new fish that I’ve had for years now. I may someday detail exactly how I did the water changes and kept my second betta alive in a 1 gallon. However, Spiro never got to see my new method. He taught me what information was false by paying the ultimate price.

It is of course, largely my fault, I could’ve always done more research. However, it is also due to the fact there aren’t enough openly available knowledgeable sources on betta care. Most places are focused on bigger, more expensive fish. Others are so dead set against small tanks that there’s no information on HOW to make small tanks work. They think they can stop people from buying them by putting out no information so that people are on their own and their fish die, like mine did. Others are extremists who post without knowledge because they pick up opinions around the internet and try and stand up for the fish so much that it does more harm than good.

It is hard to know what sources to trust and what not too when the internet is so vast and so many opinions are contradictory. As I said, I lived in a place where there were no other fish keepers or pet stores (not that pet stores are always incredibly knowledgeable). I had to choose a side and stick with it and hope that was the side with correct information. I thought better to do too many water changes than not enough. I didn’t know how delicate a balance it was. I chose my side and learned the hard way that it was wrong so next time I could choose right.

Spiro was a beautiful fish with a bold, fearless personality that survived longer than any fish can be expected to. I like to think he enjoyed his slightly larger tank in the time he was there and I am glad in a way that he passed so quickly and didn’t suffer too long. I will always be grateful for the fish that taught me my first tough lessons about this hobby. He was unforgettable.

In the end, there are times in every fish keeper’s life when they’ve made mistakes and fish have paid the price. Even with good intentions and effort, misinformation and mistakes happen. That is why I think it is so important to create this resource of proper information that can be accessible BEFORE someone else makes the same bad decisions I did.

Spiro certainly made a difference in the way I keep fish and helped my future fish lead better lives. I hope that he continues to live on with his story helping other fish live better lives with more knowledgeable keepers as well. Swim in peace Spiro.

Until next time, love from me and Luxe (my current betta)