Greg Schneider is a manager at Rockville’s Congressional Aquarium. Schneider has been with the hobbyist’s superstore for seven years, overseeing a menagerie that might at any time include tarantulas, bearded dragons and ball pythons, but always more fish and sea creatures than Troy McClure could fit in three penthouses.
Back in 2003 he was a regular person, not someone who gladly devotes a healthy portion of his time and budget to the dry-land devotion of Poseidon’s posse. The turning point, like most, is clear in hindsight.
“I moved in with a roommate about nine years ago and he had a fish tank,” says Schneider. “It was seeing that first really nice-looking tank that made me want to do the same thing. I looked at it and thought, ‘Wow, this is the most beautiful, living piece of furniture.’ I didn’t notice an attachment to the fish early on, but that’s something you see after you’ve had the same one for [a few] years.”
Schneider points out an oft-overlooked fact of home aquariums: The casual viewer is easily struck by the aesthetic benefits, but the one who maintains it must combine a biologists’ faculty for sustaining a micro-ecosystem with Dr. Doolittle’s understanding of the mood, health and appetite of an animal with extremely limited means of auditory expression.
Any long-term failure in tank maintenance will affect the health of the fish, which is just the first clue that our finned friends are more sensitive to, and aware of, their surroundings than popular thought likes to paint them. Meeting an aquarium occupant’s basic needs creates a biological satisfaction akin to human happiness, and as such the ability to read the source of a pet’s perceived “unhappiness” (usually symptoms of an unstable ecosystem) goes a long way toward keeping your hobby out of the literal toilet.
So the successful aquarist is one who can create a successful emotional connection with their fish, odd as that might seem to the outsider. It is this connection, as much as how a fish tank looks in a room, that contributes to a common condition called “Multiple Tank Syndrome.”
“Six months in, I had to get my own tank,” Schneider shares. “I fell in love. Then, a year later, I had 14 in my basement apartment. The first fish I really got attached to was my Gar. It was my first big fish — if you have 50 million little neon tetras you don’t get attached to any one. But that first really big fish that lasted five years before I had to re-home him, that was always there to greet me and always begging for food.”
Most pet fish respond to routine and can be trained like dogs and cats. They can learn to associate behaviors and objects — like opening the top of the tank or picking up a can of fish food — with crowding the top of the tank and wriggling around in anticipation of eating. They can follow a finger back and forth across a tank, and many larger species can be fed by hand or tweezers, and perform simple tricks while in pursuit of their tasty reward.
Goldfish are notorious for pitifully gaping their mouths and fixing their eyes desperately on anyone walking by the tank that might take pity on them with a flake or two. They can even cause a ruckus by slapping the surface of their water with their tails and bodies if they feel particularly entitled to a meal. Clown loaches, a type of playful bottom feeder, are also known to make happy snapping and clicking sounds while eating that can be heard across a quiet room.
Of course, the good fish-parent, unlike the overly permissive one, knows when to say no.
“I don’t want to say fish don’t have an intelligence,” says Schneider. “You walk by the tank and they all zoom to the top. The hardest part is to say no to them when [they're begging,] but the more you feed, the more ammonia the fish produce and the more you have to clean their water.”
The healthy ratio of feeding to water-changes is just one element of fish keeping to research before making your own commitment, but if you are equipped to take the plunge Schneider might point you toward an oscar. The large-growing cichlids are loved for their bright patterns and responsive antics, and a personality that puts their Sesame Street namesake to shame.
“They’re the more common of the big cichlids,” Schneider explains. “Large, but not overly aggressive. They won’t beat up on each other.”
Nor, for that matter, will they ever, in a thousand years, piddle on your rug or shred your favorite boots.
For more information about Congressional Aquarium, located at 138 Congressional Lane in Rockville, call 301-881-6182 or visit congressionalaquarium.com.