This is Boq – a Comet Goldfish.  He has been part of my family for 15 years now and he has taught me much – not only about goldfish but also about our responsibilities toward the little guys.  Boq has had a very exciting life change recently and I was brought to tears when I realized how much happier he is now.

The first time I saw Boq he was a baby – a prize in a tiny cup on a shelf in the hot sun at a county fair carnival game.  I suppose we should have boycotted the game but my friends and I played hoping to save fish.  We all won; I brought home a tiny creature in a cup.

The only thing my parents and I knew about fish was to keep them in bowls. That is entirely wrong, but it passed for such common knowledge that we didn’t even question it.  Boq spent the first 11 years of his life in a series of increasingly large bowls.  I am amazed he survived that long, as fish waste in a stagnant bowl creates fatal toxins like ammonia that kill many, many pet fish.  I can credit my Dad for Boq’s survival, as he was diligent about weekly bowl changes so the toxins didn’t build up as much as they could have.

But even though we thought we were doing our best  and we wanted to do our best – it wasn’t the best for Boq. He jumped out of his bowl once and Dad found him still alive on the kitchen floor. He recovered, and had a grate over his bowl after that. But he always had bumps on his head from trying to leave his unhealthy water again and again.

I feel awful that we didn’t pick up on the reason Boq always tried to escape. But our minds had not yet broken away from what our society told us – that fish are different, that they are less. They are not aware of things like dogs and cats; they don’t feel the same way we mammals do. If all they have is water, they are fine. They are easy pets, simple to care for. None of that is true.

Luckily, I started working at Marin Humane, where I have a supervisor who is knowledgeable about fish husbandry. She, bless her, very kindly explained what we were doing wrong and how to fix it.  Down the years, I have met many types of animals, and learned that differences in species means nothing when it comes to whether animals are capable of feeling, and deserving of respect.

Very soon, Boq found himself in a 20-gallon tank, full of filtered water. He immediately stopped trying to leap out of his habitat, a clear sign he felt better in it. He had more room to swim, and seemed to do well. My dad learned all about the tank and filter so he could improve Boq’s care.   But 20- gallons is way too small for a normal adult comet goldfish. Boq is very stunted from his time in small bowls, so the 20-gallons was a huge improvement from his old digs.

Comets do continue to grow as they age, and 20-gallons began to look rather cramped. I joined a fish forum, a fish Facebook group, and asked around. I got many different answers. They ranged from keeping the same set-up, to getting a huge pond and other fish friends for Boq. It was overwhelming, and I wasn’t always sure what to trust.  Unlike info about dogs and cats, up-to-date fish and other exotic animal information exists in forums and social media groups.  It is not as mainstream.

Things slowed down a little, because I knew getting a larger tank meant I would likely have to help my parents care for it. But covid was prevalent, and I didn’t want to risk my parents’ health by going into their house for the amount of time this would entail. This was unfair for Boq but I tried to comfort myself with the thought that he had safe water in his tank, and that he was at least okay and stable for the time being.

Then many things happened quickly! My parents and I got our covid vaccines. We noticed a mass under Boq’s gills, and serendipitously found an aquatic veterinarian a few days later after seeing a Facebook post about her. My parents and I had a discussion about Boq’s future.

Depending on what the veterinarian said, Boq would either get a new, much larger tank, or we would find him a new home with other fish, as Comets are a social species and naturally should have appropriate fish companionship. We wouldn’t be able to take on an aquatic set-up large enough for multiple fish.

The vet visit was so cool. She sedated him, took tissue samples, tested his water, inspected his mass, and answered my many questions. The mass isn’t hurting him and it will have to stay because it is so close to his highly vascularized gill area. He is overweight, and we’ve switched him to a healthier food more suited to his species. He is stunted, but everything in his body is in proportion. And in the vet’s experience, Comets who have never known other fish do not do well with them when introduced later in life.  Other people may have the same or differing opinions – who knows without trying?

I am sad Boq has missed out on the social part of being a fish. After making so many mistakes with his care I am afraid of making more. But I trust  the veterinarian’s expert opinion. I don’t want to put Boq in a situation that might hurt him, or fatally stress him. So we will keep Boq as an only child.

We got Boq a 55 -gallon tank – a 35-gallon home improvement – and I cried when we finished filling it up. He coasted leisurely around more water than he’s ever experienced before. I hope he’s happy. I think he is. I am profoundly grateful that we have had the chance to do right by Boq before it’s too late, and that he is still with us today to experience his new home. At 15, he is a senior – but not geriatric – so I hope he has a while left to enjoy it.

He is a member of our family. He may not breathe our air, but we don’t breathe his water and he doesn’t seem to mind. He was present for every meal my parents and I shared at the kitchen table, every piece of homework I did there, every post-sleepover breakfast my friends and I ate. When we walk by his tank, he immediately swims over and looks at us. He investigates when we touch our fingers to the tank, and boops my fingers when I take water samples. He is interactive and aware. His hobbies are human-watching, swimming under the stream from his filter, sucking algae off rocks, and ensuring not one food morsel gets left behind.

Animals are very vulnerable members of our families. They cannot use our language to say when something is wrong, and we so often aren’t educated enough to understand when they do communicate. They won’t grow up and move out. We are their lives and they are entirely at our mercy. This dependence is more problematic when it comes to exotic species that people know less about, as chances are greater we will make mistakes with their care. We owe it to them to educate ourselves and respect them all as individuals with unique needs.

That said, if anyone feels like helping some fishes, check out Friends of Philip Fish Sanctuary. They are how I found the vet who cared for Boq, and they do wonderful work rescuing fish and educating humans about them. They are also local!

If you have fish and they need a vet, Aquatic Veterinary Services is amazing. She is one of very few aquatic vets in the state, which is a sign of how we as a society tend to view fish. But fish, just like other companion animals, should have annual check-ups! Also, there are helpful articles about fish husbandry on the website:

Lauren Cole is an Animal Care Technician at Marin Humane, a new contributor to the B&T Blog and the ever evolving guardian of Boq the Comet Fish.