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The Verge Review of Animals: the goldfish

It’s been 73 days, and so far I haven’t killed Lincoln. Lincoln is a tangerine-colored fantail goldfish, who whizzes to the top of the tank when he notices humans approaching. The Carrasius auratus — or goldfish — has a reputation for being fragile, if you’re prone to negligence or overfeeding.

It's been 73 days, and so far I haven't killed LincolnIt’s too soon to designate Lincoln’s gender (a fish has to be at least a year old to determine sex), but for descriptive purposes let’s designate him a he. Lincoln’s tank mate is called Nemo Invested, whose orange flesh is dipped in attractive ebony-dipped fins.

Goldfish care has been fairly straightforward. Lincoln and Nemo Invested are the first household pets I’ve had in some time. Lincoln and Nemo were not my idea. I’m a family woman, and my husband and son picked them out and gave them names. It’s not that I don’t like pets, but the idea of keeping an animal in New York City always made me feel small. We’re confined to the small spaces we designate as our own in an overwhelming giant planet and our pets are subjugated to a small wedge of space. Animals in New York are a reminder that we’re hardly wild and free. Goldfish have served this function for 2,000 years. (They started as pets in China during the Tang dynasty, domesticated from Prussian carp.) And a goldfish can live up to 30 years, under the right circumstances, which makes them a little longer-lived than your average cat or dog. Potentially, anyway.

Despite their Eastern origins, goldfish were at one time the quintessential American pet. Fish were were already popular in Europe in the 1600s. It’s debatable who brought the first fish to the United States — several American authors made literary references to fish ponds in the early 19th century and P.T. Barnum claimed to open the first public aquarium in 1856. According to The Atlantic, the US government likely accelerated the goldfish-owning craze: the United States Commission on Fisheries were recipients of the first large Japanese goldfish shipment in 1878. The Commission then gave away goldfish to Washington, DC residents. "Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, these fish were bred in ponds in Washington and Baltimore, and anyone who sent a request through a member of Congress would receive one, along with a glass globe to keep it in," The Atlantic reports. Nearly one in three DC households owned a goldfish. President Grover Cleveland kept goldfish as official White House pets. By the 20th century, goldfish ownership was common across the country.

Goldfish were at one time the quintessential American petSo far, I’m finding the fish welcome house guests. I wouldn’t call them companions in the same spirit of a more domesticated animal. There’s no walking a fish. No cuddling on sofas. No guilt from leaving them home alone throughout the day. Fish tank cleaning is far more bearable than cleaning up kitty litter or scooping poop. They even take naps. I imagine Lincoln dreams of gnawing away at crushed bits of fish food with his pharyngeal teeth located in the back of his throat.

When it’s time to eat, he sidles toward the hand of his feeder, eyes wide, unblinking — because goldfish don’t have eyelids. Lincoln also lacks a stomach; he relies on his intestine to digest his lunch. His digestive tract is twice the length of his body.

Contrary to popular belief, goldfish have memories and can actually be trained to eat out of their server’s hands. They also have inner ears. I wonder if Lincoln listens to our conversations. Most of these that take place in his hearing distance have to do with feeding him, or what’s for dinner, or how my son has to finish his homework. I imagine Lincoln is becoming quite deft at catching our vibrations. By now, he must be able to pick us out by our natural scents; goldfish have a sense of smell that is stronger than human beings'. Perhaps my lavender lotion smells like lilies filtered through the water.

Goldfish actually do have memories Letting them loose can wreak havoc on the ecosystem. Last spring, more than 3,000 goldfish were discovered in a Colorado lake, crowding out native species. Apparently some pet owners dumped their goldfish there — and without predators to keep their population in check, the lake turned into a goldfish free-for-all. Goldfish can wipe out frog populations because they eat tadpoles; they eat a lot, making resources scarcer for native fish; and they can bring along new diseases that other species might not have experienced before — which can have catastrophic results.

Setting Lincoln free is a crime, anyway — New York state requires a permit to place a fish in a body of water. So mostly Lincoln and his tank mate Nemo Invested stay in constant motion in an inaccessible, well-lit, temperate tank, circling each other in a delicate dance. Nemo prefers to hang out in his faux castle, while Lincoln is the outgoing fish who stays near the glass and the action.

When it comes to goldfish, Lincoln and Nemo aren’t all that special. They were probably bred on a farm, which probably wasn’t organic. They probably were fed grass-fed fish food. There are hundreds of types of goldfish, determined by the fish fin. (Lincoln and Nemo both have swishy double tails.) To fisherman, goldfish are just another kind of bait. My fish are two small fry of millions who are New York City residents.

The Goldfish

Verge Score: 6.5

6.5

Verge Score

Good Stuff

  • Pretty to look at

  • Not very demanding

  • Long-lived

Bad Stuff

  • Easy to accidentally kill

  • Invasive species

  • Difficult to cuddle