It's me or the fish!
That's the ultimatum every fishkeeper dreads — when their hobby turns into obsession at the expense of their relationship with others. And from what I've seen of it, it happens a lot.
WORDS: NATHAN HILL
Some people set up their first fish tank and quite like it, others grow bored, but for a small percentage of the population the small seed of a pastime turns into a strangler vine, cutting off everything around it and making the owner its permanent slave.
Most significant others will tolerate one aquarium in the living room, encourage it even, especially if they get to select a fish themselves and care for it as their own. The first breeding project usually goes OK too, with some platies maybe breeding and needing a small tank set up in the vicinity to raise fry, but any more than that and there will very likely be trouble.
The signs of addiction
A mad cat woman could be so called if they had say half a dozen cats or more, and the needs of their cats caused a significant change in their otherwise normal lifestyle. Choose animals over people and the early signs are there…
Not wanting to go on holiday is often an early indicator too, followed by lapsed hygiene in the kitchen when visitors notice a hair in their food. Mad aquarists are similar, tolerating smelly fish tanks or maybe not washing their hands after doing fishy things, then eating.
If you have fish that are too precious to leave with others or too time consuming to ever leave your house for a few days, "normal" people may feel that you are starting to stray from the accepted society.
Set up three tanks or more and you are leaving large visual indicators around your house that fishkeeping is something you definitely enjoy. Choose fish tanks over essential storage furniture or even stick one in the place of the sofa and you will probably cause a row.
Put one upstairs in the bedroom, with humming airpumps and splashing filter outlets, let alone having to maintain it there and for most of the normal civilians out there, you are pushing it too far.
Then start spending the kind of sums that you would normally spend on a new car, on your hobby, and your obsession will be noticeable on your bank statements too. This is indicator number one – overspending.
Spending too much time with your fish, when you should be visiting relatives or looking after the kids is also a slippery slope and almost guaranteed to get you in trouble. Even watching too many nature documentaries over mainstream TV could cause a family divide. This is when fish care has caused a behavioural change and you have altered from the person that your partner used to know, and hooked up with in the first place causing indicator number two — become boring.
And setting up and maintaining all those tanks cause quite a bit of disturbance too. I know plenty of people who have blocked sinks with gravel, and leave strands of Vallisneria in the bath. Best new towels get ruined mopping updirty water and clean kitchen utensils get used to clean clogged filters.
Boil bogwood in your finest Tefal, or bake rock in your new fan oven and you’ll be in trouble there too.
Don’t stick frozen fish food next to the frozen chicken either. If you do any of these you are causing indicator number three — making mess in the house and ranking the needs of your fish as high, if not higher, than the needs and priorities of other human beings around you.
So what happens if this is you? At best your other half will call you sad and boring, and take the mickey out of you in front of your mates. Maybe they’ll take up a hobby and become obsessed with that. This can work but spend too much time enjoying yoir own company instead of theirs and your relationship may not be functioning as it should. And at worst you'll get the phrase of death — "it's me or the fish!"
Over the years I've met lots of people who took it too far. Some got their orders to close down their tanks immediately, others just had to reign it in a bit and go from keeping ugly brown predators to something small and colourful.
One person I know replied "the fish" and is now divorced, yet infinitely more happy and now with a more tolerant new partner, but I’ve heard some horror stories over the years too, like several grand’s worth of marine tank sat there pride of place when the kid’s feet are bursting out of their worn shoes.
Some people go way over the three tanks too. I’ve been to houses with 60 tanks, 80 tanks and even 100 tanks. I’ve even been to one where they ripped out the kitchen to fit fish tank racking. Fish were breeding quite merrily but that house literally had no kitchen. Jack Heathcote literally sealed up his cellar and made that into a tank (pictured above) only being able to access it by clambering through a hole in the living room floor! When PFK visited the now well known fishkeeper years ago, he discussed building his next, even larger tank first and then a house around that.
It’s mostly men who get given the ultimatum from their long-suffering wives, but I’ve met a few women who, left to their own devices, have gone pretty batty for fishkeeping too, and dare I say it, become even more addicted than the men.
"It's amazing what you have to do around here to try and get some attention!"
I know kids who have been dragged around every aquatic shop in the UK and have grown to hate fishkeeping, the exact opposite intention of their obsessed parent. I’ve also known the daintiest of wives forced into hand-balling 6 x 2 x 2's and a husband who went so fish mad he built a custom sized tank that was so big it caused the house to subside. They’re now divorced too.
Me, I’m guilty of most of the above, buying houses based on them having concrete floors, no water meter and garages that I can turn into fish houses. Like most fishkeepers I’ve given myself a bad back and my other half knows when I planning some crazy tank build because the tape measure comes out and alcoves and walls start getting measured. She knows when my head is spinning with irrational "let's knock out that wall" kind of ideas and puts her hands over her ears until I stop.
I choose holiday destinations that I can somehow tie in with fish, and I’ve had fish tanks worth way more than my car, which has been left neglected.
When I was a teenager my mum had enough of me and my hobby. Thirty or 40 tanks down the line, I bought a second hand five foot tank that didn’t even make it out of the boot of my car as my intention was to have it in my bedroom. "Oh no you’re not!" said my mum.
My fellow fishkeepers tried to offer support and advice, saying: "fill it up quick while she’s out then watch her try and move it," but I wasn’t that cruel.
I’ve snuck plenty of tanks in for other people while spouses were out and gone along with the massive chauvinistic stereotype that women don’t know how large objects are, so you can stick a six foot tank in the place of a four foot and they won’t know how big it is.
I’ve also been party to conversations where they agree to a four foot tank being told: "c’mon, it's only that long,” yet once agreed I (I mean they) go for a custom build, making their humble four foot tank 30” front to back, and weighing at half a tonne!
I want to know your experiences. Have you been given the relationship ultimatum? Or are you the one who has delivered it? How many tanks are too many, and what, if anything, can be classed as irrational fishkeeping behaviour?