Growing up, I was something of an aquarium hobbyist. Over the course of my childhood—and with more than a little help from my parents at first—I kept a whole aquatic menagerie in containers ranging from a one-gallon bowl to a heated 30 gallon tank. Recently, I decided to make a modest return to the hobby, selecting a single betta fish as a new pet. They’re attractive fish, to be sure, but more to the point bettas have famously low maintenance requirements—they’re almost impossible to kill.
Even so, I noticed after bringing the fish home that “Finley” spent his first few minutes lazing at the bottom of the bowl. Concerned, I did what I imagine many people do these days—I took to the web to learn more and see what I should do. I quickly found an answer (the water had yet to warm up completely and bettas park themselves on the floor when they’re feeling cold). But I found something else intriguing, as well—since I was a kid, the experience of becoming a fish owner seems to have changed dramatically.
When I started keeping fish, my father and I bought books on fish and keeping aquariums. I imagine that these days, most Americans with broadband access who are starting a new hobby will hop online for advice and to plug into the culture of their chosen pursuit—call it a fan culture, community of practice, or whatever you like.
But communities of fish enthusiasts are a different kind of introductory source from the beginner-oriented pamphlets that preceded them—the people creating sites on goldfish, bettas, mollies, and other aquarium fish tend to be the ones most taken with their hobby. Many research a fish’s native environment and provide extensive tips on how to recreate it in one’s apartment. Rather than minimum requirements, fish bloggers and forum admins instead provide thorough tracts about the ideal environment for their fish of choice.
And the contrast they provide to what used to pass for beginner’s advice can be somewhat striking. Pet stores, books, and magazines for instance, once more commonly marketed bettas as worry-free fish that could live in small containers, with very little maintenance or equipment (see the image above and to the right for a typical example). But consult an introduction from a contemporary betta hobbyist site and this is what you’ll read:
With enough education, less people will purchase…tiny containers and hopefully, one day, aquariums marketed to bettas will be filtered, heated, 3-5gal (12-20L) tanks with silk or real plants which will keep any betta safe and happy for their full lifespan.
Of course, even without referencing the web, casual hobbyists might easily guess that many of the “tanks” in which bettas are routinely kept—ranging from drinking glasses to flower vases to tiny novelty bowls made for office desks—are ridiculous and inhumane. But even goldfish, whose existence in one-gallon fishbowls once seemed so commonplace as to be axiomatic, are now being liberated by hobbyist communities. Take, for example, this introduction from a hobbyist site to keeping the common goldfish (Carassius auratus):
Ideally, this goldfish should be kept in at least 25–40 gallons of water. Although an aquarium heater is not required, it’s still a good idea too have one on hand for emergency. The water temperature for it should kept around 65-78′ F. One must also remember that goldfish must eat, swim, breathe, and drink in the same water that they live in, so water quality for the fish must be taken seriously. A good water filter is usually required in order to to keep goldfish healthy and to maintain safe water conditions for the fish. Some water parameters that need to be checked when setting up a new tank and also once the tank is established are the ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, and pH levels.
What’s interesting to me is that as we increasingly turn to the internet to acquire new skills, from brewing iced coffee to making beds with hospital corners, guides like these are more and more likely to be one’s introduction to a hobby. Even if heated tanks and filtration systems aren’t the norm for “beginner fish” in real life, they’re now normative. While a range of opinions are represented, peruse these help sites for a bit and you’ll easily find examples wherein posters who’ve put their fish in lowly bowls are gently reprimanded—and occasionally even excoriated viciously—by tank-owning users for treating their pets inhumanely.
In some ways this is not unlike the sort of hierarchy we see hobbyists and fans imposing on one another across many communities, whether it’s self-described “birders” looking down their noses at casual “bird watchers,” or sci-fi fans debating the relative merits of “Trekkies” verus “Trekkers.” Unlike the cases of birders or Trekkies, however, there’s a particularly explicit and somewhat interesting moral appeal going on here to a third party—the fish and its needs.
First off, these appeals are not unconvincing. Read a little bit of blogger/fish journalist Lea Maddocks’ well-researched and scientifically grounded treatise on what hobbyists should know about the habitat requirements of bettas, and you’ll find yourself quite ashamed of your one-gallon fish bowl, which suddenly looks like an aquatic internment camp. By referencing research and the natural world, bloggers and commenters’ claims about a proper moral order trade on the authority of the scientific order. It’s a fascinating exercise both in moral philosophy and the sociology of knowledge.
Second, and not coincidentally, the moral imperatives set up by these narratives serve to push people further into the hobby. What better excuse to buy the 10-gallon tank you’ve been eyeing than this newfound responsibility for the immortal souls of goldfish, weightily resting on your shoulders. When successful, these narratives beget new hobbyists and perpetuate the norms of the community.
Lastly, from a bioethics perspective, it’s interesting to see the participatory culture of pet communities online intersecting with the larger societal trend of a rising perceived moral status for companion animals. Larger companion animals, like dogs and cats, now routinely receive levels of medical attention, from organ transplants to palliative care, once reserved for humans.
The moral status of animals, of course, is a fairly profound question. Many folks might scoff at the level of care hobbyists recommend for humble bettas and goldfish. But just in case, I’ll be checking the tag sales for a new aquarium.
[Image Credits: Clipping from Prevention Magazine; "Common Goldfish With Typical Colorations" from PetGoldfish.net]