By Jeffrey the Barak
You can spend five-thousand dollars setting up and stocking a huge tropical reef aquarium, and the bastards won’t even look at you. But put a one dollar goldfish in a five dollar bowl, and that little fish will await your return twenty times a day, eager to play follow the finger and he or she will gaze at you and love you like a puppy dog.
If you ever play the game, or perform the exercise of, Word Association, then the the most common response to “Goldfish”, is “Bowl”.
The typical picture of a goldfish, in photographs, cartoons and on film, is a picture of a goldfish in a bowl. But if you let people know that you have a goldfish in a bowl, they will consider you cruel, and they will tell you that a goldfish needs to live in a long tank with an elaborate filter system, and then move to a pond when it matures.
The majority of goldfishes live out their lives without ever becoming mature pond dwellers. Most live, and die, in aquariums or in bowls.
So the question arises, how can a goldfish be humanely kept in a bowl? Is it automatically cruel, reprehensible and impossible, or is the noble rescue of a commercially bred goldfish from the pet store, and the keeping of such an animal in a bowl justifiable.
It’s all about the water.
Actually, it is humane to keep a goldfish in a bowl, as long as the water is good, and as long as the fish can be relocated to a pond or large habitat when it becomes mature, as in too big the live in the bowl. It is not automatically cruel to keep one in a bowl.
But a goldfish aquarium has features that are missing from a simple empty glass bowl full of water. There are many elements that remove or convert toxic chemicals from the water, and also elements that support living bacteria that help keep the water healthy for your fish.
These elements include gravel, biological media, cotton filters, carbon filters, air stones, bubble wands and more. Each has a duty as part of a system to remove harmful wastes from the water and to keep it clean, oxygenated and nourishing to the skin and gills of the fish. Even if you have a nice large aquarium with elaborate filters, gravel and air systems, it is quite easy to mismanage the systems and end up with cloudy, uncomfortable water that will make the fish sick or even cause them to die.
So then, if an aquarium system costing hundreds of dollars can be that bad, how could a bowl be better? The answer is simple, the bottom line is the state of the water. The fish only depends on the quality of the water and it does not matter if this perfect water is introduced as-is or if it relies on a system to make it so. In fact it is less cruel for a goldfish to be in a bowl of perfect water than it is to be in a less-than-perfect larger aquarium.
The way to have water in a fish bowl that is as good as or even better than the water in an aquarium system is to have a second vessel. Water can be obtained by buying bottled water, which is often called mountain spring water, or it can come from a tap water filter, as long as it is not the reverse-osmosis kind. It cannot be distilled water, de-ionized water, or water containing municipal chlorine or other chemicals designed to protect human consumers from food poisoning.
But this is easy. If you have drinking water at home for the human occupants, it can usually sit in a bucket for a day and become safe for a goldfish to live in. But to be extra sure, you can add a drop or two of aquarium water conditioner and a granule or two of aquarium salt before it sits, so that by the time your fish is living in it the next day, it will be nourishing and comfortable.
So one simple way to have a goldfish living in perfect water is to have two bowls. Each day the fish can be moved to the other bowl, while the first bowl can be emptied, wiped clean and refilled with water that will be ready for the fish to live in the next day. As long as your home never gets freezing cold inside and you do not feed the fish more than it can eat in a minute, or more than two to six times a week, the fish should remain in healthy condition and be quite content with it’s environment.
Better yet, to have a similar system that does not involve removing the animal with a net, and potentially causing stress from the move, you could empty most of the water, leaving the goldfish in the remaining water, and then introduce the clean water from the second vessel. Using this method, you can even have a small, lightweight rectangular tank, such as an affordable plastic “Lee’s Kritter Keeper” and a cheap plastic bucket as the second vessel. If you have a water filter on your kitchen faucet (not reverse-osmosis) then you can refill the bucket from that and use it the next day. For this system you don’t even need a net. Just one bowl/lightweight tank, and a second bucket.
As long as the goldfish has not reached a size where the bowl is too small for it to swim freely in one direction for a couple of seconds, and you are able to offer it some visual stimulation from outside the bowl a few times a day, then you will have a happy healthy fish in clean water at all times. Just be ready to bid farewell to your beloved friend when it’s time for it to move to a big pond for the rest of it’s, hopefully long, life. If there is no sign of such a pond within a hundred miles of your house, then most aquarium stores will be willing to take in a donated healthy-looking large goldfish in exchange for another one-dollar feeder to rescue from a certain date with death. Hopefully they’ll sell it to someone with a big pond or aquarium.
So we have to remember a few things to justify a goldfish bowl. Goldfish are not natural. They were bred by man to become attractive golden fish and were originally hardy river carp, scavengers that could survive in ponds, streams and rivers, eating anything and everything, and since they don’t have a stomach, but rather just a long intestine, they would excrete the waste quickly and make the water dirty. An expensive and complicated aquarium system intended to condition the water may fail to do so for many reasons, and it is very easy, or even highly likely, to have a goldfish in such an aquarium, suffering distress from a less than optimal water quality. A bowl can contain clean, healthy, comfortable water if you have the two bowl system, or a bowl and bucket system. The water in this bowl can be, at all times, better than the water in most people’s aquaria. And lastly, even if your goldfish dies after a few months, as they may do through no fault of the owner, it can be a few months of a good life that it would not have had as food for an aquarium carnivore.
Aside from the well-being of the fish, the advantages of a goldfish bowl over an aquarium are many. They don’t cost much, they don’t weigh as much as your sister riding a bike, they don’t require electricity or reinforced furniture, and you can move them from room to room in order to spend more time interacting with your pet.
While it is always nice to see healthy goldfish in a clean, healthy large aquarium, it is also not so good to see them suffering in a cloudy, dirty tank and exhibiting spots, sores and nervous behavior. Your happy healthy bowl fish will be better off than most goldfish alive today.
What does the fish need in it’s bowl?
Goldfish are bred from carp, which are scavengers. This is why goldfish can be seen constantly sucking pieces of gravel into their mouths and spitting it out. You may assume they are playing or trying to keep busy or wishing they had something to eat, or extracting some nutrients from the bacteria on the gravel, but they just can’t help this natural behavior. In an aquarium system the gravel can be a medium for the growth and support of healthy bacteria, but it is also a hiding place for fish waste that breaks down and introduces harmful elements into the water. So if you can stand the inevitable sight of a few strands of fish poop in your bowl, don’t bother with the gravel, because let’s remember, it’s all about the water quality, not the objects.
And speaking of objects, goldfish are more intelligent than most people assume and they love to follow your finger and look at you and play with you, but they have no need for decorations or toys. In fact such objects can cause injury because part of the natural behavior of a fish is to be occasionally startled and move several inches at a remarkably high speed. Better if there is no castle or treasure chest to collide with.
The minimalism of a clear empty bowl and a healthy fish in clean water is ideal. If you want to landscape the habitat, then set up a large aquarium system.
So if you would like a little golden friend to interact with while you sit at your desk all day, don’t be put off by people telling you a goldfish bowl is a cruel habitat. Remember it’s all about the water, and if the water is always good and there is enough of it to permit a little swimming, your fish will be content.