This morning on the way to have a coffee with my daughter we stopped on a bridge that goes over a drainage canal to see if we could see any wildlife. We do it often. Sometimes we see birds; a kingfisher a few times, some times of heron or similar; I saw a horseshoe crab once; there is a big monitor lizard we have seen a few times; and my daughter once saw an otter on her way back from the MRT (AKA subway or metro) in the rain. But mostly we see fish. Aquarium escapees. Some type of America cichlids [wikipedia.org]. You see them in all the drainage canals in Singapore, people dumping their fish when they get too big for the tank, I guess.
American cichlids are, or were and I suspect still are, a popular fish in the hobby trade, especially among college students, mostly male. They like them because they are hard to kill and, more importantly, they are aggressive. Many people feeding them live goldfish regularly. Many aquarium shops have “feeder goldfish” you can buy for cheep, like 10 for a dollar or something. Feeders are feed to picky fish that won’t eat dead food, like Volitans lion fish [wikipedia.org]. But the college boys would sit around stoned in their dorms or apartments and feed goldfish to their aggressive cichlids just for fun. The most common cichlid for the college crowd were Oscar [wikipedia.org] and Jack Dempsey [wikipedia.org]. And these fish get big for a tank; Oscars can get close to a foot and a half (45cm) if your tank is big enough. Jack Dempsey’s are a little smaller, about a foot (30cm). As I remember Jack Dempsey’s were more popular due to their association with the boxer of the same name [wikipedia.org].
On afternoon a regular, G███, came in, walked up to the counter and said, “I need a new Oscar. Small one, maybe two or three inches.”
Usually G███ came in to buy feeder fish, every week, like clockwork, to feed to his big Oscar. G███ was in his mid-50s, tanned and always with a smile, wearing Bermuda shorts and a Hawaiian shirts. He used to talk about living in South or Central America when he was younger, his dad worked somewhere there so he spent a lot of time as a teenager and even 20-something around Latin America. He knew a lot about cichlids, he’d always keep them as pets when he was a kid, catching them right out of the streams and rivers. Since returning to the US he always had a few aquariums full of them.
Before Fish Fetish opened G███ had been buying feeders from one of the local general pet store. He had no use for birds and reptiles or small mammals, so he started frequenting Fish Fetish so after we opened since we had a more and more diverse fish, including a section dedicated to American cichlid.
I was working that day, J███ was off and J████ would be in for the evening shift, “New Tank or did something happen,” I asked.
“Nah… he just got too big for the tank.”
“Oh. Tank-buster did you sell him?”
“Nope. I ate him.”
He said it so flatly, with no hesitation, it took a second to sink in. “What?”
“Fried him up with some tomato’s and lime. Had him over rice.” Like talking about fish from the supermarket not a pet he raised for several years.
“They eat them all the time down south. Fried or grilled. Every time mine gets too big I eat them and get a new one.”
“Eating your pet is weird man.”
“Don’t think of them as pets. I think of them more like chicken or cows. Just livestock.” He paused, “Like plants, some people grow roses and whatnot to look at, others grow tomato’s to eat. You can do both. I do it with the same fish. Reminds me of growing up down south.”
“It’s still weird man.” And then switching gears, “We have a 5 inch Oscar in the plant tanks, if you want”
“Nah, lets see the small guys. They grow fast.”
We started to walk towards the back of the freshwater fish section, where most of the cichlids live. As we walked G███ continued to explain, “a lot of the fish you sell here, from Central and South America, are food down there.”
We stopped in front of the cichlid tanks, 12 20-gallon tanks near the back of the freshwater aisle dedicated to American cichlids, and 4 more on separate plumbing for the high PH loving African cichlids. At the time we had, maybe, 5 Oscars, all under 2 inches and all in different tanks. Cichlids are territorial and will attack each other. The more closely related the species the more aggressive they are to each other.
If another fish is too big to eat and too small to eat them, a cichlid will mostly ignore it in the same tank, unless it looks like the cichlid, same species or close enough to have a similar body shape, even totally unrelated fish that are less aggressive, the cichlid will bully them constantly. Chasing and biting at fins, it will stress the smaller or less aggressive fish out and often kills them if they are not separated.
This behaviour is not unique to cichlids, most fish are this way… Even schooling fish, like tetras and barbs can be this way. People will buy a few to make a small school in their tank, says five Cherry Barbs. After a while only one will be left and they come back and buy a few more, but the original Barb is much bigger now and it will nip and chase the new fish until they die. Kill or be killed, nature is violent. Cichlids are just more aggressive than most, they are ass holes, it’s why the college guys like them.
So, you have to separate the aggressive fish. One Oscar per tank, not shared with a Jack Dempsey’s or other similar body shape. This means we never had more than about 12 aggressive cichlids at at time. Putting them in the other fresh water tanks with tetras, barbs, guppies and what not is a no-no, they will randomly go homicidal and kill off whole schools of fish one day. Sometimes we had big cichlids, typically donated by someone when it outgrew their tank, which is why I asked G███, and we would put them in the big 60 gallon plant tanks up front or, if they were really big, in the 125 gallon tank that housed the bigger freshwater things – big catfish, freshwater rays, and so on. Really big Oscars were a menace, they would even nip at your hand when you were cleaning the tank or catching some other fish. At some point they decided that anything that moved was food.
After G███ picked an Oscar out and I scooped it up and bagged it we walked back to the front desk. On the way he pointed out the neon tetra. Neons where always in the first tank, they are the classic fish and always sell a fast so we would have 40-50 in one of the first few tanks at eye level.
G███ pointed at the tank and said, “they eat those ones like popcorn or peanuts. They fry them in pan with spices. They pop when their brains or stomach or something explode because of the steam. Spicy crunchy snack.”
“Really? You tried them.”
“Yea, a few times, street food. Everything is better fried.” He continued, “if you go to a market in rural South America, the Amazon part, you will find a lot of the fish you sell here. The catfish, discus, lot of the cichlids. If it’s not poisonous and doesn’t taste like shit, you eat what you can catch.”
“Makes sense. That’s five dollars.”
“Can I get a dollars worth of feeders too?”
Featured image includes images from: Howard Jelks, U.S. Geological Survey, in the public domain from USGS [usgs.gov] and Free Food Photos [freefoodphotos.com].