Following last week’s story of my first pet, Spot, did you know that fish are the most popular pets in America? About 14.5 million households have tanks containing 160 million finny friends. The highly profitable aquarium industry ($300 million/year) creates much animal cruelty, from the often deadly capture of 20 million mostly saltwater wild animals, to the high mortality of fish in homes (an empty tank is not only a bummer but represents hundreds of dollars in equipment, so despite the likely outcome it’s common to buy more and more relatively inexpensive “replacements”).
Bettas, aka Siamese fighting fish, are among the most well-known aquarium residents. America came to know these beautiful animals in the 1963 James Bond movie, “From Russia With Love” as the criminal organization Spectre is compared to three Bettas confined to one tank: Two fight, one dies of the injuries, while the third waits his turn to attack the weakened victor.
Inch-long bodies sprouting several inches of elegantly flowing red, blue, green iridescent fins, male Bettas are extremely territorial. That works in the wild where a lone male inhabits a small, shallow, plant-choked slice of rice paddy waiting for food and a mate. Come the annual dry season, he does fine when that turns into a shallow puddle, but that ability has been corrupted by the pet industry into a myth that these bright jewels can survive in tiny plastic containers or “betta bowls.” They’ll live for a bit of time, but they will not thrive.
Water in tiny containers quickly becomes toxic, the result of fish poop, pee and uneaten food. One betta needs no less than a five-gallon aquarium with specialized water filters (lots of cleaning, low water-flow) and frequent changes of fresh water. Fascinating animals, males make floating nests of saliva-coated air bubbles (they are air breathers, unlike most fish which get oxygen from the water) in which they deposit and guard fertilized eggs. A Betta will do quite well alone in that tank, but if tank-mates are wanted (never another Betta!) be careful since those long fins can easily become targets. A well cared for Betta will live up to five years, while one in a bowl will likely die in weeks.
Ken White is the president of the Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA.