Thursday, January 22, 2009

Sorry, little guy

Cold killed my catfish.

A plecostomus, to be exact; an algae-sucker meant for aquariums and ponds. A bottom-dweller. I dug us a pond last year and stocked it with about two dozen tiny goldfish and one large-ish pleco. The golds were about twelve cents apiece and were an experiment to test my ability to maintain a living aqua-system in our backyard. Life isn't cheap, whether you're a fish or a fowl, but placing expensive koi and carp into an untested hole in the ground wasn't first on my list of financial priorities.

The pleco was $11, but would serve a distinct purpose: to munch on the algae that was most assuredly going to bloom in the hot Florida sun. About 6" long and a giant among the other fish, he exhibited a ferocity indigenous to catfish in general and took a swipe at the nice lady who suggested him for my new pond. "He's a fighter," she said, slipping him into a bag with some water. Words that echoed in my brain every time I had to wade knee deep into the 900 gallon installation to fish out pump and fountain elements that had become happily disengaged from their connectors.

Actually, since day one, I never saw him again until this fateful night. I sent the goldfish in first, sort of like floating canaries in liquid coal mines and when none of them rose, gasping, to the surface of the pond, I then released Sir Pleco into the depths, where he promptly slipped to the bottom and remained there. The still-clear water afforded a good look at his fearsome visage, blending almost perfectly with the rubber pond liner. As algae and other organic elements (most notably fish poop and uneaten food) began to make the area look more lived-in, I imagined that he must be quite happy, eating his fill and holding court somewhere in the three-foot depths of our mini-lake. In fact, I always imagined him growing to shark-size down there, popping up in my face whilst I changed the pump filter, prompting me to shriek and fall back exclaiming, "we're gonna need a bigger pond."

As time went on, however, I began to wonder if he had actually croaked down there, stuck in one of the unplanned crevices in the liner that had resulted from my poor excavation (it's still a nice pond, but there are things that would be done differently next time.) Or perhaps he was taken by one of the egrets that sometime go stepping across our lawn. That theory didn't hold water, pun intended, because the two dozen goldfish were imminently more interested in swimming near the surface where they could easily be eaten by egrets, cats or anything else that hung about, yet they not only thrived, but indeed multiplied in time, growing as large as I imagined the pleco must be.

But alas, tonight, after two nights of hard freezes, I went out to feed our little finned family and saw something lying on the bottom of the pond in the shallow end underneath the yellow glare of landscaping lamps. A white shiny belly was reflecting the illumination ever so much and I immediately thought "oh no." Grabbing the net, I shooed the monster goldfish away and came up with my dear pleco; freshly dead. There was no sign of life and he had not yet begun to bloat (or float, for that matter). His head was covered in a bit of algae, at least proof positive that he had plenty of the stuff to eat while down there. Living in Florida, I sincerely didn't believe that our pond would get too cold for him. In fact, the lady at PetSmart said that he was an incredibly hardy fish. A little more research revealed that plecos prefer water temperatures between 82°F and 74°F - neither of which have been the constant in our pond for the last couple of weeks.

"Oh well, little guy," I said. "I hardly knew ye."

He's been buried in the backyard, hopefully not to end up as fodder for our resident mole or possum (or as a stinky plaything for our dog, Bella.) As a living creature, I respected his life, his existence and wish him safe journey to where ever he may be traveling next. For the short time that he lived in our eco-system, I hope he had a happy life, happier than living in a tank in a big box retail store. And upon reflection, I suppose the wonder will always be there: did the other fish know him? See him? Enjoy his company? And better still, will they miss him?

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