“I have three brothers, so there were four kids in the house with my parents when we were younger, and we weren’t really allowed to have cats or dogs,” says Ron Coleman, professor of biological sciences at Sacramento State and cichlid researcher (cichlids are a large family of fish). “Fish was an option, and as a young person, I was very interested in nature, so I started keeping fish. I was probably about 10 years old then, and I’ve had fish tanks ever since, for 48 years. Now, I have a lot of them. Here in my lab at Sacramento State I have about 200 fish tanks and another 15 at home. I have a lot of fish.”
Indeed, Coleman cares for enough fish and manages enough aquariums to qualify as a hardcore aquatic enthusiast, a hobby belonging to a large number of unique and frequently forgotten pet owners. While many of us think of aquariums as nothing more than modest bowls of water, inhabited by brainless beings that float around until we inevitably flush them down the toilet, devoted fish keepers truly do see fish as friends, similar to how dog owners might view their canine companions.
“There are lots of different ways of getting into the fish hobby,” Coleman explains. “Some people have one tank, and in the Bay Area, for example, that might be because of space. They may dream of having more, but they have one, so they usually attempt to get a community of a bunch of different fishes, and they often do that because they like the idea of having a little slice of nature in front of them. And fish tanks are very relaxing — you see motion and interaction in a way that you might not see if you have, say, a gerbil. You can create, in a relatively small fish tank, a picture of nature that can look quite real.” (Or you can go the ridiculously ornate route, like basketball star Jimmy Butler did when he had a 6,000-pound aquarium resembling a boombox installed in one of his homes.)
Possessing a sliver of nature is what initially attracted Mark Chen, program chairman of the COAST Fish Club, founder of Nature Design Studio aquarium decorating and aquatic life enthusiast, to fish keeping. “I started with a little tank, because I walked into a fish store one day,” he says. “But then it just grew uncontrollably from there. It would be okay to say that I was consumed by it.”
Then, the diversity of options kept Chen consumed. “I quickly stumbled upon Monster Fish,” he explains (among hobbyists, Monster Fish are also known as Tank Busters, because of their ability to outgrow their tanks). “These are predatorial fish and really large in size. The mantra for keeping those fish is the bigger, the better, so you want to go as big as you can.”
For many aquarium owners, the promise of owning another kind of fish or another kind of aquatic plant is always there as a driving force for their passion. “There are just so many kinds of fish,” Coleman confirms. “There are like 540 families of fishes, and the cichlids are only one of those. That one family has almost 2,000 different species, so even if you tried, you couldn’t keep them all in your life.”
Chen adds, “This hobby is so deep. There are so many aspects, and so many types of fish, and the amount of knowledge that you acquire over time is tremendous.”
Despite the stereotype that fish — at least the ones we keep in tanks — are just mindless critters, many actually have distinct lifestyles and quirks. “The diversity is incredible, so people like that,” Coleman adds.
“The reason we’re into aquariums is that we’re observers,” Chen chimes in. “We like to watch the fish interact with their environment.”
Coleman points to none other than cichlids as one example of how fish can live very unique and engaging lifestyles. “The thing that really draws people to the cichlids is how they reproduce,” he explains. “All of them provide parental care. They take care of the kids in all sorts of different ways.” He adds that, at cichlid conventions, where all kinds of contrasting people gather, “If you show a picture of a cichlid with babies, they all get into it.”
In essence, cichlid owners (and many other types of fish owners) are able to breed entire families day in and day out, after which they can act as voyeurs, watching as their little fish families grow and bond. It’s almost like watching an aquatic reality show, in real time. “A lot of the cichlids lay their eggs on the ground or on a hard surface, like a rock,” Coleman explains. “Then they tend to them; they guard them. So you have these two parents who are fighting off anything that comes near the kids, and it’s impressive to watch. It’s not about being big; it’s about being motivated, and they’re motivated. They’ll attack your hand if you put it in there, which is just really wonderful to watch.”
Coleman also mentions a… erhm, well, particular breeding process called mouthbrooding. “Mouthbrooding is just incredible to see, and it’s about half the cichlids that do this,” he says. “The female lays the eggs, but immediately picks them up in her mouth, and then the male fertilizes them — in her mouth. It’s oral sex that’s gone on for millions of years, and for many of these species, that’s the only way they can reproduce. They have to have oral sex.”
“The mom has these eggs in her mouth, and she carries the eggs, then they hatch in her mouth and turn into little fries, and then she’s still got them in her mouth,” Coleman continues. “This is going on for like three weeks, and she can’t eat during that whole time. Then the really cool thing is, when she decides to let them go, she lets them out of her mouth, but they usually hang around, and if something else comes by, they’ll go back in her mouth again. They just zip in, and it’s amazing. You can’t believe that she could have, like, 40 or 50 kids in her mouth. When people see that, they’re just blown away. It’s just, ‘Wow, these are parents who do incredible things for their kids.’”
In addition to providing a clear view into the fascinating lives of very different creatures, Coleman also says, “The fish hobby allows people to become an expert, which is kind of cool. It may be someone who, during the day, has a rather regular job and does sort of regular things, but they become known as the expert of working with a particular group of fishes.”
“Someone could start and learn how to work with these fish, and within a few years, they’re now an expert on, maybe, YouTube, doing videos about what they do with their shrimp,” Coleman adds. “That attracts people — the idea that there’s something they can excel at.” And not only something will-nilly they can excel at, but at creating their own small world, filled with life.
Because of how extensive this hobby can be, though, you really need to nerd out to do it well, which is also part of the draw. “To keep aquatic plants, you need to understand water chemistry and fertilizer,” Chen says. You also need to understand how certain fish interact with each other, as well as the plants you put in your tank, which allows (and almost forces) hobbyists like Chen and Coleman to tinker with their aquariums on a daily basis. “You’re always looking for new stuff,” Chen says. “There are so many different species out there, so you’re always kind of exploring and trying to see if you can do a setup with these fish. That’s why a lot of hobbyists have what we call MTS, or multiple tank syndrome.”
But while watching your fish and nerding out can be good fun, perhaps the biggest draw for many aquarium enthusiasts is the bond they form with their aquatic friends. “Some of these fishes live a very long time, particularly some of the catfishes and large cichlids,” Coleman says. “I had a catfish, which has since died, for 22 years, and I have a friend who’s had a catfish for 30-something years. Catfish tend to sit still a lot, but the big cichlids have a lot of, well, let’s call it personality. They’re definitely individuals, and they definitely recognize individual people, and I can say that as a scientist. They know the difference between me and my wife, and if a stranger comes in, they’re like, ‘I don’t know that person,’ and they act very differently.”
You can imagine, then, that when these fish pass away, shrugging and flushing them down the toilet isn’t an option. “I actually had a fish just die a few months ago that I’d raised from a baby,” says Coleman. “He was almost two feet long, and I’d had him for like, 15 years. You feel that. That’s longer than many dogs live. This was a fish that saw our grandkids grow up and knew them — and they knew him.”
While it might be hard to believe that fish are capable of forming such bonds with humans, Coleman points me toward a species called oscars, which are well-known for being especially personable. “There was a time when I answered a lot of questions on the internet, and people would say, ‘I’ve had this oscar, and we’ve had him for like 10 years. Then, since last fall, he just looks depressed. He doesn’t do anything anymore.’ To which I’d say, ‘Did you by any chance have one of your kids go off to college?’ And they’d say, ‘Yeah, how’d you know?’ I’d say, ‘That’s why.’ They get depressed when their people go away. That’s how tight a bond this is.”
“The last thing most hobbyists want to see are their fish dying,” Chen adds. “They invest their time and emotions into the fish they keep. Not only that, some fish can get really costly. For example, one of my clients has a fish that’s five figures, so it’s a very, very rare possession. If he sees the tank isn’t doing well, or if he sees that fish are showing signs of illness, he gets so stressed out that he can’t even go to sleep.”
Now, Coleman notes that not all fish are capable of forming relationships with people, specifically calling out goldfish, which have oddly become an unlikely go-to for fish tank newbies. “Goldfish are one of the hardest fish to keep, and for people in the hobby, it’s always like, ‘Oh dear,’ when someone says they just got a goldfish,” Coleman says. “They get diseases really easily, but they’re cheap, so people start with them.”
Nonetheless, he argues that the bond between a fish and its owner is certainly there — and very real. “They’re not going to go get the newspaper like a dog or something like that, but they’re there, they’re responsive and they deal with people in a very individual, personal kind of way,” he says. “So it hurts when one of these guys goes away.”