Death is a funny thing. I don't mean funny as in "ha ha". What I mean is, I mean funny as in bizarre. It's something that has a major impact on us. We fear it, treat it like it's a majorly serious issue. But, it's also something that we deal with on an everyday basis. There's always stories on the news about someone who died in some way (Accidents, murder, disease, etc.). And there's also the countless deaths that occur around us involving nature. Animals being eaten, plants succumbing to the harsh winter cold, and so forth.
Speaking of nature and death, the loss of a pet is one of the earliest and most common ways we first learn about mortality. That, sadly, nothing lasts forever. My tale deals with the time shortly before and shortly after the loss of my beloved pet fish. And, not only how I reacted to her loss, but how my other fish reacted as well. It lead me to wonder just how similar and how different we humans are to the rest of the animal kingdom.
A few months ago I managed to purchase a thirty gallon fish tank. I filled it with brackish (that's water that contains salt, but not enough to be considered saltwater) water, placed some colorful rocks on the bottom, added a couple of decorations (A large rock formation and a replica of a Ming Dynasty vase), and got everything ready for the fish. The fish I decided upon were Green-Spotted Puffers. I've always adored puffers with their curious personality, the way they always seem to be smiling, and for being very smart as far as fish go.
Originally, I had four fish. Their names were Howard, Leonard, Sheldon, and Penny. Yes, they were named after the characters from the series The Big Bang Theory. My dad and I were fans of the show, so we thought it would be fun to name them after the characters. Alas, both Howard and Leonard were the first to go. It was to be expected. This was our first time owning puffers and we had yet to perfect our skills on keeping them as pets. Howard, as far as I could tell, died of stress. I suppose he couldn't handle the shift from living in a pet store aquarium to moving to his new home in mine.
As for Leonard, his death was due to being stuck on the tank's filter. He had suffered an injury to his tail and never fully recovered. For the longest time since then, I was worried about any fish becoming stuck on the filter. In particular, there was Sheldon. For the longest time, he was the weakest fish. He could barely swim and would constantly become stuck on the filter. I would unplug the filter several times each day so he could escape and swim away to safety.
On the other hand, Penny was the stronger of the two surviving fish. She was aggressive, smart, and had a tendency to show her dominance by nipping at Sheldon's fins. I figured she would be the one to outlive all the other fish.
I was wrong.
A few days before her death, I noticed Penny was acting strange. She would spend most of her time at the bottom of her tank. Her tail would be curled up against her body, and her colors would fade from a bright green to a much duller shade. I knew that this was a sign of stress among puffers. But, I couldn't figure out what was wrong. My family and I were learning how not to overfeed them and we had the water checked every couple of weeks to make sure it wasn't contaminated. Plus, we would change the filter once a week and we'd get them clean water from the pet store every two to three weeks.
And, sadly, she didn't seem to be recovering. It got to the point where she even refused to eat. This concerned me greatly as puffers love nothing more than to eat. They get excited when it's time to be fed and will actually beg for their next meal. I remembered watching Sheldon and Penny eagerly watch me as the swam back and forth in their tank awaiting their dinner. It was a sharp contrast to the sickly fish she had become.
Then, one night, she just laid there at the bottom of the tank. She was still breathing, but her color was all but completely faded and her belly had gone from a soft white to a dark black. I knew this was a sign that she was severely ill. I was afraid for her safety, and was saddened that there was nothing I could do to save her. All I could do was speak softly to her and provide what little comfort I could in her final hours.
To my surprise, she used her last bit of strength to barely swim to the side of the tank closest to my bed. It was as though she wanted to be as close to me as possible. Even more surprising, however, was when Sheldon laid right next to her. Penny used to chase him away, but now she didn't even bother to attempt to bite him.
But, why? Why would she try to get close as she could to me? Why would she allow Sheldon to get so close to her? Was it that she was too weak to notice? But, if that was the case, why did she look up at me when I spoke softly to her. Why did she glance over at Sheldon when he laid next to her?
It then dawned on me. She was scared. Penny was afraid of dying alone. She knew her time was coming to an end, and she wanted some familiarity to ease her fears as she drew her last breaths. Perhaps I'm projecting too much of my humanity onto her fishy behaviors, but it's the best explanation I can come up with for why she acted the way she did on her final day. I was more than just her owner and caretaker. I was her friend and she was mine.
Penny died the next day. I had expected and dreaded that Sheldon would've devoured her remains. However, to my surprise, he didn't. He remained by her side, as though he was guarding her. He'd swim around and occasionally glance at her body like he was expecting her to suddenly start swimming alongside him again.
When we removed Penny's body from the tank, Sheldon began swimming around frantically. I couldn't say for sure, but it seemed as to he was confused and upset. Penny was his tank mate for the longest time, and now she was gone. The realization that he was now alone must've frightened him. I wondered if it saddened him as well.
Sheldon is now the only surviving fish I have. He's grown much stronger since I first got him, and he has formed a strong bond with me as well. There are times, though, where I find him lying on the bottom of the tank where Penny used to be. I sometimes wonder if he still misses her.
Death is a funny thing. And, perhaps, we humans aren't the only ones that have ways of coping with it.