How to Avoid Cruelty to Gold Fish?


Maneka Gandhi

Maneka GandhiLast week at an outdoor art exhibition I found four feet long  tall narrow glass tubes filled with water and goldfish.  The goldfish were all crammed at the top, desperately trying to gulp air.  The “culturatti”’  frequently tapped these tubes for the pleasure of  seeing the fish flee in panic. One treated the tube as an ashtray.  The event was a disaster for my hosts who had to put the fish into a rectangular tank and return them to the shop that rents out fish as party props.  That shop is being prosecuted for cruelty. Everybody, including the artist, got told off.

Believed to have been sent from Heaven in answer to the prayers of a Chinese Emperor, goldfish were the first fish to be “domesticated”.  Beautiful and  bright, they have excellent social and learning skills. Those who live together in a tank,  form a school and stick together, with new fish being chased and nipped until they join the school. They have strong memories and can learn and remember complex concepts. They recognise voices and can distinguish between humans, swimming towards familiar faces. 

Unfortunately , they are popular as decorative , ‘low maintenance’ pets. The price of  this is the shocking  cruelty which goldfish undergo. First, there is the cruelty of captivity. Fish are wild water creatures,  not  feng shui charms or home accessories trapped in  silly glass bowls swimming round and round with no activity or anything to look at but empty space.  Confining a goldfish in a bowl is the equivalent of  putting a human in a small transparent trunk , or a bird in a fist. Government offices and airports put aquaria into loud crowded areas where people bang on the glass. Chinese restaurants create shallow 3 inch deep ponds full of rocks against which fish scrape their underbellies and die of sores. They appear more and more as accessories in homes on TV and in adverts. But animals are not meant to be ornaments. They have their own natural habitats and to confine fish in must be enough to drive them mad. Why should they be condemned to spend their lives just going round in circles ?

Don’t buy goldfish . If you have them you have a duty towards them.. Unfortunately, few ‘owners’ bother to learn how to keep goldfish before getting one. Buying from illiterate sellers, they carry fish off in plastic bags. By the time they reach home, the fish are already battered and stressed from the swaying and burnt from the direct exposure to sunlight.  Shoved into a small tank or  bowl, they  will last just a few days before dying from bad feeding , pollution and burns from  chlorinated or ammonia filled tapwater poured directly into the bowl to “top up” every day, lack of oxygen from having no filters.  "It's only fish, we’ll get more,"  say buyers, throwing them out. In one case, people shifting house simply flushed their fish down the toilet. I am waiting for them to strangle their kids when they next move.
Keeping goldfish in a bowl  is not only cruel but injurious to their health causing blindness and stunted growth. Goldfish can grow to 23 inches and weigh 3 kilos – but most of them remain one third of that.

Goldfish are thick-bodied fish who eat a lot and produce a LOT of waste.  The bowl quickly becomes polluted with the fish choking on their own excreta. If that doesn’t somehow seem cruel to you, imagine buying a Saint Bernard puppy and keeping it in a two foot by two foot crate, never letting him out, and only cleaning his messes once a month or so.  If you think that bowl smells bad above water, imagine trying to breathe below the surface – something like living in your own toiletbowl.

Goldfish need a lot of water.  Babies require TEN gallons of water per fish and adults 30 gallons each.  Most fish bowls contain half a gallon or less.                   
A goldfish ( carp family) in the wild can live upto 20 years. Household goldfish survive just 6 to 8 years and most die within a month.  They do better in outdoor ponds but  if you live in an area which gets very cold in winter you can bring  your fish indoors until the weather warms. If you haven´t put an aerator in the pond, you will need underwater plants to provide oxygen. Add surface floating plants to provide shade and shelter. Ponds should be deep enough for fish to escape predators like cats and birds. Something  hollow with lots of openings through which fish can easily swim in and out if chased or threatened, should be placed in the centre.

Indoors, goldfish may be housed in rectangular aquariums placed away from direct sunlight. Do not bring fish home until the aquarium is readied.  Lay a 3 – 5 cm thick layer of clean, small  earth coloured gravel on the tank floor. Too light or bright shades will make the fish feel exposed and uncomfortable. Plant water weeds like cacomba, anacharis and vallisneria along the edges to supply oxygen. After planting, cover the plants with brown paper, fill the tank with rainwater and leave it alone for a few days. At first dirty and opaque, the water will clear as sediments settle and the plants interact with organisms in the water. Never change the water entirely, simply add new rainwater at intervals to make up for evaporation.  In the absence of rain, there are now products which dechlorinate and condition tap water so it may be used in aquariums without harming fish.  

After bringing your fish home, open the plastic bag to allow in fresh air, then reseal and float it in the tank  for about 15 minutes until the bag water reaches the temperature of the tank water. This prevents the fish suffering shock when they are transferred from bag to aquarium.

Temperature is VERY important to the wellbeing of your fish. Unable to function in water below 10°C, they will remain still, hardly breathing or eating. Tank water should be kept between  14-20 °C.  In winter , raise  temperatures to 16-21°C. In summer, higher water temperatures will result in  fish becoming more active necessitating more aeration.  Sudden changes of temperature can be fatal.

Fish that rest constantly on the water surface  (apart from feeding times) are short of oxygen. Refresh the water by bubbling air through it daily using an air pump with a charcoal filter. Lack of oxygen can be remedied by adding plants which in the right ratio can produce enough oxygen for the aquarium.  Once a balance is established between fish and plants, the water remains clear and oxygenated.

Goldfish need food specifically prepared for them. Spread a pinch of food over the surface of the water 2- 4 times a day which the fish should finish within 2 - 3 minutes.  If too much is given, the water will become cloudy, and bacterial levels will rise.  Goldfish consume processed goldfish food, shelled green peas, bloodworms, brine shrimp, and blanched green leafy vegetables. 

Cleaning is crucial. Excreta which spreads over the sand should be removed once or twice a week using a pipette or suction hose. Algae may have to be wiped from the glass  with an aquarium scraper. Water should be added at regular intervals to compensate for evaporation-- monthly replacement of not more than two thirds of the tank water if necessary. Do not change all  the water at one time. Clean the filter weekly and replace the charcoal. Along with the new charcoal, return a bit of the old charcoal back into the filter to preserve nitrifying bacteria. When the water from the tank goes through the same filter which is never cleaned the fish become sicker and sicker.

 Blue-green algae on the tank floor and on plant leaves indicates alkaline water and unhealthy aquarium conditions. Green algae growing on the glass, is a sign of healthy water, and fish enjoy nibbling it.  You can remove it from the front  to see your fish, but leave it on the back. Excessive green algae is usually caused by too much light while brown algae means there’s not enough getting through.

In many countries , the law protects goldfish. Italy has banned keeping of goldfish in bowls citing the cruelty of confining animals in small spaces. Trauma to fish who suffer intense heat and stress in plastic bags, makes it illegal in England for fishes to be given as prizes at fairs or sold to children under 16. Ruling them companion animals, American courts treat any cruelty to goldfish as a felony. Switzerland has a rigorous law that protects goldfish against physical and psychological abuse even decreeing that aquaria must have an opaque side to allow the fish a natural night and day cycle.

Ideally, pet fish should not be sold to anyone without a “Responsible Fish-Keeper"  licence issued by a designated local animal welfare organization (AWO) after the applicant has completed a fish keeping programme. Shops must see this certificate before selling any fish.  The AWO  can choose to visit the fish-keeper’s home to check the aquarium.Knowing that someone can come and check on our fish  will make us respect these intelligent animals much better. Keeping goldfish is cruel, irresponsible, and unnecessary. You would have to be truly an insensitive person to do so.


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