Why do people strive for the absolute minimum when keeping livestock?


Why do so many folks strive for the absolute minimum when keeping livestock? Nathan Hill shares his theory.

Why do so many folks strive for the absolute minimum when keeping livestock? My own theory for it might surprise you, but hear me out. The argument isn’t really so silly...

One of my aquatic friends who runs a hugely successful social media channel recently posted something contentious. Yet it really shouldn’t have been contentious, and while I watched the resulting fallout in the many dialogues to follow, I didn’t see a single sturdy response that rebuffed her position.

Stop the race

Abridged, what she wrote was along these lines: Fishkeeping isn’t a race to the bottom, and as hobbyists none of us should be striving for the bare minimum.

In 2020, that shouldn’t even warrant a discussion. But the fact that she had to raise it, and the fact that it was received with such unfiltered hostility, left me despairing for where we have come.

I dislike this culture that all too often perpetuates and enables poor practice, and the circles that we have allowed to promulgate falsehoods. We have, frankly, moved as a hobby into a bad place, yet this evolution — this devolution of thinking — is, despite slowly manifesting itself, something that I have feared, observed and commented on for several years.

Small beginnings

Did I ever mention my growing disdain for the nano aquarium? With hindsight, I think that these are where many of the problems with modern day ethics began.

To explain. Sometime beginning in the nineties, the trade wasn’t in the best place. The hobby wasn’t exactly cool, the former pool of young newcomers were more interested in games consoles and mobile phones than they were glass boxes of water. The aquascaping scene had yet to take off, biotopes extended as far as Malawi set-ups, and for your money you were going to end up with a garish lump of a tank with noisy filtration, godawful substrate, tacky decoration and a community of fish that very few people were vetting. Silver sharks, Tinfoil barbs, Oscars — these were all the normal pitfalls awaiting a naive hobbyist. Who wanted to pay several hundred pounds for that?

Then the sophisticated nano tanks arrived. 25 litre boxes with light and filter, for less than a Friday night on the lash. It was, at that time, a perfect solution for bringing in hobbyists.

Tiny tanks had long been around, but until then they had generally been ugly plastic things with hideous trims and themes. Or bowls. Damned bowls.

Unlike bowls, nano tanks weren’t inherently bad. The problem was that they represented the bare minimum. They were the smallest possible sizes to keep livestock, and that set a precedent. They also drove retailers selling them into a moral swamp.

It was a shared dilemma that nobody knew how to break. A retailer could say to a customer — as many surely did and still do — that the tank they were looking to buy was too small for (insert unsuitable fish). But that came at an immediate cost to the shop. The customer was likely to then go elsewhere, where they might be sold the same tank and fish without question. Stuck between a moral rock and a bankruptcy hard place, many stores became tightlipped and quietly recalibrated their values.

That was how we came to reset our ethical odometer. Swathes of the industry quietly acquiesced, normalising tiny set-ups we all knew were deceptively hard to keep.

And this, I believe, is why all too many aquarists in 2020 are striving for the bare minimum — because that’s all they know. And the reason for that is because an insecure trade told newcomers to aim low.

This article was first published in the January 2021 issue of Practical Fishkeeping.