Gourmet food for goldfish?

Life seems to have become infinitely more complicated over the years, offering more choices than I care to grapple with. This came home to me in spades today when I went to buy tropical fish food for a newly established aquarium. When I saw what was arrayed before me, my heart sank – whole shelves of products for fine-tuning the diet of the discriminating fish.

Sometimes I feel like a refugee from a simpler, perhaps more streamlined time, when neighborhood pet shops had a small cluster of identical containers on the shelf labeled "fish food." It made shopping for the stuff a snap. But now I found myself rummaging for my glasses to read the text-heavy descriptions on a collection of products that occupied an entire aisle. There were "power diets," "daily energizers," and "color enhancers" ("to bring out the best in your fish"). After five minutes of poring over the testimonials, I felt more lost than ever. Finally, a young man approached me. "Find what you're looking for?" he inquired.

"Well, no," I said. "I'm looking for fish food."

Without missing a beat – and with a perfectly straight face – he asked, "Are your fish stressed?"

"I beg your pardon?" I said.

"Are your fish suffering from stress?" he asked again."Perhaps from competitive pressures from other fish?"

I looked around for a witness to this conversation. "Well, I don't know," I said. "I haven't asked them. But they don't look like they're enduring any particular hardships."

The employee took a container from the shelf, hefted it as if to emphasize the density of its ingredients, and began to extol the product the way someone might promote a miracle cure for baldness. "It has special calming ingredients," he said. "All-natural and direct from Alaska."

Hmm. I had noticed that the angelfish in my tank were a little excitable lately, perhaps intimidated by the frenetic swimming habits of the zebra fish. Still, I wasn't sold. "Isn't there anything that's just your basic fish food?" I pressed. "You know, something generic."

The fellow blanched. He must have suddenly realized that he was not dealing with a sophisticate in the ways of fishes. He made a gesture of helplessness and shook his head.

Truth to tell, perhaps we are not just living in a more complicated age, but rather an overly sensitive one. Increasingly careful not to tread upon the feelings of others, we have imposed human sensibilities upon the lives of everything – from geraniums to guppies.

As a biologist, I harbor a "live and let live" attitude toward living things, but I am also a realist who tends to stop short of attributing humanlike goals and desires to the earthworm. And I've found that there are times when giving another creature its due, and only its due, can help to put things in perspective and relieve human anxiety in the bargain. Allow me to illustrate this last point.

I recall, years ago, sitting in a waiting area of a travel agency that had a large aquarium with a solitary goldfish swimming around a decorative rock. There was one other patron, an older woman, who, from time to time, sighed as she stared at the goldfish. "Is something the matter?" I finally asked her.

She wanted to talk. "Well," she said, "I've been coming to this travel agency for 15 years, and I always watch that poor goldfish swim in lonely circles around the rock in that aquarium. It must be terribly bored."

"Madam," I said, warming to my area of expertise, "take it from me. That goldfish is not bored. Its brain is no larger than a split pea, which means there's no room for the sensation of boredom. In fact, there's very little room for memory. Every time it turns a corner it forgets where it's just been. Its life is an unending adventure. This fish is not bored. If anything, it's overstimulated."

The woman's relief was palpable. She sighed once more, but this time it was because she was happy for the goldfish, which, by virtue of my illumination, was no longer an object of pity.

I didn't tell this story to the employee in the pet shop, for what would it have accomplished? His job was to sell fish food, but I'm sure that, deep in his heart, he must have known that fishes, rather than being demanding and picky, are among the most uncomplaining and accepting creatures on earth. Their needs are very basic.

I eventually found generic, no-frills fish food in a local discount store. My pets ate it up with great enthusiasm. In fact, if I didn't know better, I would say that they glowed with gratitude and happiness at the spontaneous appearance of fish flakes on the surface of their world.

Stressed? The very idea.

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