“Do you mind looking after my fish while we’re in Montreal?” Dax said after handing me a set of apartment keys he had cut.
The fish have always stressed me out for good reason. The tank is saltwater and has a labyrinth of pipes and wires and filters and several sensitive things. Coincidentally, on two previous fish-sitting terms, two of Dax’s fish died in my care. The deaths weren’t suspicious, just inappropriately timed to make me look negligent.
The size of the tank is what Sea Monkeys would dream the great ocean to be. Small children could swim in it and be required to stand on tippy-toes. Dori, a Regal Blue Tang fish (just like Dori in Finding Nemo) is nine-years-old now. Copper, a brilliant yellow tang, would be in university (or a nice community college) if fish years translated into human years like the dog formula. And Skittles (so named for his skittling, skitterish, scooting hide n’ seek qualities) has played a big companionship role in Dax’s life too. They watch Dax make coffee in the morning and follow him about the kitchen and livingroom from their vantage point. The intimate relationship between man and fish is undeniable.
The fish have a chiller (an underwater air conditioning system to maintain the 78 degree urban tank temps), a dynamic lighting canopy that operates on moon/tidal cycles (I made that part up) and a fanciful diet of sea kelp, bloodworms, spirulina and krill (shrimp). The money invested in Dax’s tank would make a tidy down payment on a condo in Liberty Village.
Dax has dumb-ified the instructions for me again, complete with four emergency contact numbers. The kelp is easy-peasy to administer. The kelp sheet is folded once, put in a clip and attached by suction cup to the side of the tank. Or, if you are David, the demoted (but still best friend) fish-sitter, you fail to make suction contact and watch the clip fall ever so gently and ever-so-slow-motionally to the bottom of the tank into the coral that looks like a velvet brain with wavy tendrils. Not even salad tongs and a half-submerged arm can retrieve such lost clips.
The kelp is breakfast—dinner is when the frozen gourmet cubes are unveiled. They are smaller than a Caramilk square, and probably disgusting to anyone with a squirmy stomach in relation to frozen bloodworms.
Now here’s the kicker. The frozen cube must be hand-held while Dori feeds because she has become accustomed to Dax’s royal princess treatment. Every fish-sitting stint I do, I have to reacquaint myself with Dori’s accidental ‘nips.’ She is like a rabid Ms. Pac Man, attacking the cube in rapid bites. The bloodworms that Dori miraculously misses float about the tank for timid Skittles and the less dominant Copper to ingest.
Tonight, with frozen cube vice-gripped between index finger and thumb, I was reminded of the hamster Dax had when he was younger. He was sensibly named “Hammy” as I’m sure 1 in 20 hamsters are. Hammy liked to be hand-fed too, and he also liked to bite the hand that fed him on occasion as well. We would stick our nervous and vulnerable hands in the cage and approach sparkly-eyed Hammy with carrots and apple slices. He would be appreciative and cute-looking, his tiny pink paws gingerly accepting the offering, then, out of nowhere, CHOMP. I can see myself, still, completely terrified and startled, as though a python had bit me. I would try and remove my hand from the cage so quickly that the entire wire cage structure would come with my hand, the lower tray would fall to the floor, shavings would whoosh everywhere and Hammy would make a run for it while I assessed a need for stitches or not.
Feeding Dori, I can’t have such girly moments and retract my hand in irrational fear because the lighting canopy would probably come crashing down inside the tank, electrocuting all of us. Already, I have to precariously perch on a Parsons chair to reach the top of the tank. Here I watch Dori at eye-level and can anticipate when she is going to accidentally nab me instead of the bloodworm buffet. I’m on to her now.
I’ve sustained a lot bites while fish-sitting, ferret-sitting, bunny-sitting, chimp-sitting and the like. I even had a kid sister who liked to bite more than Hammy the hamster. Kiley would sink her teeth in, cross her eyes, growl and leave perfect indentations of her molars in your unsuspecting arm. My childhood fear of cross-eyed, growling biters probably explains why I’ve never babysat kids. But that doesn’t mean ferret-sitting is any easier.
I worked at a nature centre in my teen years as a Jr. Resource Interpreter (my badge even said so). What I didn’t interpret so well, was how interested Musky the ferret was with Tuffy the snapping turtle. On a slow winter morning at the centre, I let Musky out of his cage to scoot around the auditorium. I was doing a water change on Tuffy’s tank and had placed him in a plastic tub on the floor. I could hear Musky scampering about and continued with the task. When I bent down to pick up Tuffy and return him to the tank (he was about the size of personal pan pizza then), he was gone.
I wasn’t alarmed because Tuffy didn’t have many hiding options in the auditorium. I scanned the floor and between the rows of chairs and eventually heard banging from behind the tank. Then silence. I investigated and could see Musky’s albino tail poking out from behind the tank. He had Tuffy in his mouth and Tuffy was wedged sideways between the wall and the tank.
I convinced Musky to release his death grip on the shell and he bit me instead (this was nothing new). Tuffy hovered a few inches off the floor, suspended between the wall and the tank. Musky decided to leave the crime scene and with a firm grip I was able to tip Tuffy vertically and slide him out, without getting snapped by the snapping turtle.
I’ll take Ms. Pac Man, the back-kicking rabbits, the clawed cats that I have to force-feed buttered pills, lizards needing live crickets and chimps with an appetite for candles, hair gel, dish detergent and Coke. I’ll mix sardine and kibble broths for Marlon Brando and let Harley the border collie stand with three paws on my stomach and neck while I try to do crunches on the floor.
But babysitting kids?
That thought still scares me.