The boredom was killing her. Jemima was tired of all her usual activities of the summer. She was fed up with watching Netflix, done with all her reading lists, was not motivated to make more paintings and it was too hot to go outside or in the kitchen to bake. She was musing over her practically dull life when her mother’s suggestion brightened up her mood.
“Let’s get you a pet. I think it would be a good experience for you to take care of a living thing for a change.”
The very same afternoon, as Jemima entered the pet store with her mother, she was met with an array of sounds, smells and a terrific sight. Birds of all sizes with sharp eyes and funny beaks squawked and screeched at her. Cats with furry tails and sly eyes meowed at her. Little playful puppies wagged their tails and woofed from their cages, trying to grab her attention. All of them seemed too noisy or demanding, and a bit overwhelming.
The shopkeeper gave a laugh at her expression and guided her to another section of the store, which was full of aquariums of different sizes with fish of every shade, size and texture you could possibly imagine. This part of the store seemed magical to Jemima, who stood transfixed in front of the biggest aquarium, which held about fifty or so goldfish. The way they rhythmically wriggled their bodies through the water, their shiny skin sparkling silver light and their little mouths popping open and close as if reciting a mantra was so mesmerizing.
It was difficult choosing from the fish. All of them were eager to touch her finger which she placed onto the glass, trying to nibble at it. It made her bubble with laughter to see these little creatures move about in the water. After a good half hour, there was one that caught her eye. The goldfish was of a slightly lighter orange with her underside, fins, and some of her face pearl white. It reminded Jemima of the swirls on a lotus cheesecake dessert,
Lotus, she thought. Perfect.
“That one! That one over there is perfect!”
Over the next few days, Jemima became an expert in fish caring. She would spend most of the hours beside her fish in her little bowl, fuss over changing her water, putting some pebbles at the bottom and feeding her. Lotus would swim about busily, uninterested in Jemima’s attention or of her imitating fish faces through the glass.
To Jemima, it felt like the fish was ignoring her. She complained about it to her mother.
“Well, Jem, I told you a fish would be a bit boring for a pet. I guess she just misses being with her family.” Her mother suggested.
That got Jemima thinking. She knew that animals did not have the cognitive capabilities of humans, but did fish have feelings? Did they need their family members close by to stay safe and connected? Surely, they must feel awkward in a bowl of water and some rocks with some human peering over them every few minutes. She opened her laptop to find out more.
To her surprise, she found out that fish were cognitively intelligent organisms that could exhibit emotions and feelings as well. She found the book of Jonathan Balcombe, an author and head of an animal welfare organization and started skimming through it. Within a timespan of a few minutes, she became familiar with many new concepts about fish.
Fish can feel pain and they choose their environment according to their mood and pain. In an experiment, zebrafish were divided into two groups, one injected with a pain-inducing acid and the other with just saline water. Both groups were then given a painkiller injection. The fish that were given the acid moved to darker and barren parts of the experimental tank where there were no rocks or coral and preferred to stay alone.
Probably like I want to be shut up all by myself in my room when I’m feeling hurt, thought Jemima.
Fish could also remember and recognize human faces, according to another study. When a group of underwater scientists regularly swam to a school of fish, these fish started recognizing them. They would come to the humans to be petted, turn over and be playful just like your pet dog would be. Fish in aquariums can also learn tricks taught by their human owners like flipping, swimming in circles, chasing small floating toys or jumping through hoops.
Like animals in a circle, thought Jemima. I wonder if I could teach Lotus a trick or two. And I wonder if he recognizes my face yet and feels happy to see me.
Fish also communicated with each other in different ways. One amusing example given was of the herrings, who passed gas from their anus and made sounds which they used to communicate each other. Jemima burst forth into peals of laughter after she read the term ‘flatulent communication’.
Every fish was bound to have a personality of its own. In a school of fish, some are bolder and more adventurous, and they tend to lead the group, while others are observed to be timid and remain within the center of the group.
I wonder what sort of fish Lotus is, Jemima thought. She seems to be bored and longing some adventure, I guess.
Fish were extra quick and efficient learners; they could learn to use tools and employ tricks for their benefits, like squirting a jet of water above the surface to capture an insect.
I must get small marbles, and hoops and other fish toys for Lotus, Jemima promised herself.
Fish are social animals and stay happy with fellow friends and fish. Although they do not have facial expressions, you can tell by their restlessness or different behavior that they’re yearning for a partner.
Jemima closed her laptop. A wave of grief and guilt washed over her as she looked over at Lotus swimming around in its bowl.
Over the next few days, Jemima shifted her fish into a bigger bowl with pebbles at the bottom and small plastic plants bought from the gift shop. She got small floating plastic rings as well, which she threw one by one to Lotus. To her surprise, the fish swam through the hole of each loop, flipped over and them wagged its tail, as though happy and excited.
“Well, someone other than me was also definitely bored.” Jemima laughed.
She made a short and simple documentary on ‘fish have feelings too’, recording Lotus sad in her initial boring bowl and then Lotus in her new bowl with the toys and pebbles, flipping and tossing around happily.
After the summer break, she showed the video to her whole class and teacher, explaining about what she’d learnt about fish psychology. Her teacher was proud of her and exclaimed at her having a productive summer break.
One thing that gnawed at Jemima though was the fact that Lotus was still alone. She decided what to do, although it was a difficult choice for her. The following weekend, she went to the beach with her family. She took Lotus with her in a jar.
“Are you sure, Jemima?” her mother asked her again.
“Yes, mom. Lotus deserves to be happy like all of us too. And free.”
She opened the jar and Lotus swam to the surface. Jemima lovingly stroked the fish’s head with a finger and whispered,” Stay happy. I’ll never forget you!”
She toppled over the jar, and Lotus fell into the vast water, disappearing among the waves. Jemima stood there peering, and after a few seconds, the little fish came up to the water. It was moving its mouth as if thanking her. Jemima smiled and turned away.
Aniqa Mazhar is a graduate of QAU in Biochemistry. She has taught sciences to O levels and is currently planning for her MS in Food Technology. Aniqa’s hobbies are reading, watching movies, writing, calligraphy, long walks, and nature photography.