By Melissa Wiley
Some scientists have posited fish as our natural ancestors. Whether fish prove to be distant cousins or not, those who love fish like their own wouldn’t feel at home without them. An aquarium imbues an underwater dimension of style into your home that truly defies description, and the versatility of aquarium design knows no bounds. Custom installation can allow the underwater world to take virtually any interior form you can imagine, majestically spanning your entire foyer or adding an understated aquatic accent to your corner bookshelf. Or you could opt for a freshwater or saltwater kit that makes being a stylish fish guardian as simple and easy as it gets. Unlike a painting or chic new rug, however, this colorful addition to your living space houses living organisms. As such, caring for its gilled inhabitants entails all the responsibilities of fully fledged pet parenthood.
Aquariums have far more to offer than just surface beauty. They provide a noninvasive source of stimulation that can translate into measurable improvements in health. Scientific studies have shown that merely gazing at fish can lower blood pressure and assist in reducing health risks associated with stress and high blood pressure. The pacifying effect of aquariums seems intuitive, but verges on the remarkable when evidenced in the becalming of children with hyperactivity and other disorders and seniors with Alzheimer’s disease. A 1999 Purdue University study, for instance, found a correlation between the display of aquariums with brightly colored fish and increased food consumption and mitigation of disruptive behavior in patients with Alzheimer’s.
Dr. Aubrey Fine of California State Polytechnic University, a preeminent practitioner and scholar in the field of animal-assisted therapy, employs office aquariums to render his patients, primarily children with hyperactivity disorders, more receptive to therapy. “I use differently colored lamps in my saltwater tanks, bringing hues that make the aquariums more inviting, appealing, safe. Fish also have a very tranquil motion that brings a real sense of comfort,” he says. More than simply a source of calm, however, aquariums also serve as social lubricants and teaching tools for pro-social skills in Dr. Fine’s practice. He often invites children to take part in caring for the fish themselves. “Some fish have personalities, and you can entice them to interact,” he enthuses. Dr. Fine is careful, however, not to include fish in his aquariums who display aggressive behaviors and also cautions that “fish tanks are a lot of work. You can’t forget about that.”
Owing to anecdotal evidence of the positive effect of aquariums on children with autism and related developmental disorders, municipal aquariums are increasingly serving as silently supportive backdrops to experimental therapies. The National Aquarium in Baltimore, MD, is one case in point. Earlier this year, the aquarium played host to therapy sessions conducted by Kennedy Kreiger Institute’s Center for Autism and Related Disorders Studies designed to develop social skills among children with autism. According to Dr. Rebecca Landa, the center’s director, “The aquarium is the perfect community setting for the social skills intervention because the children are so motivated to learn about the exotic animals, and the lighting and physical space is very soothing.”
Studies have even shown that dental patients who gazed into a fish-filled aquarium before an operation experienced the same degree of relaxation as those who underwent hypnosis. These same piscine-gazing patients also required less pain medication post-operation. And who’s to say that an exhausted second-grade teacher or dental hygienist herself couldn’t benefit from an aquatic mellower now and again. It’s little wonder, then, that medical offices as well as schools and nursing homes are increasingly making aquariums a standard feature of their décor—and reaping the benefits of it in more ways than one.
At first blush, the difference between saltwater and freshwater fish appears obvious enough. The primary difference, however, is not one of value, but of adaptability. Freshwater fish have evolved the ability to exist in water that may fluctuate in levels of salinity brought on by drought or flooding. The common maxim that freshwater fish are easier to care for stems from this adaptability. By contrast, saltwater fish hail from the sea, where the fish have to work harder, so to speak, to maintain harmony with their environment, ingesting more amounts of water than freshwater fish do in order to rid their bodies of excess salt.
When you put saltwater fish in a tank, you have to take over for Mother Nature in maintaining a specific ratio of water to salt in order for these fish to survive. Saltwater fish are also a little choosier about what they eat, making them, all in all, more fragile of creatures. Technology has done its best, however, to catch up to modern saltwater aficionados on the go with modern reef systems that are increasingly mitigating the difference in workload for saltwater and freshwater aquarists. Commenting on whether a first-time fish guardian would be best opting for a saltwater or freshwater aquarium, Kevin Curty of the Old Town Aquarium in Chicago suggests, “It depends on what the person wants and how much time the person can give to the fish. But with freshwater fish, there’s more room for error. You can forget to change the water or a feeding once in a while, and the fish can still survive.”
So why would anyone bother with the fussier saltwater fish when the heartier freshwater fish are to be had in abundance? In a word, variety. There are simply more varieties of saltwater fish, in fantastic colors, shapes, and sizes. When you think of bright, tropical, exotic gilled beauties, you are thinking of saltwater fish—not to mention picturing them swimming elegantly across your living room wall, reflecting colorfully off your hardwood floors. Their evolutionary path may make them seem like the prima donnas of the sea when it comes to maintenance, but in terms of style and beauty, many would say they have no match.
A humane aquarium is, first and foremost, one with a humane and well-educated guardian. However magnetizing the pull of those striking saltwater clownfish, it is ultimately irresponsible to incorporate them into your aquarium if you are not willing to undertake the responsibility of ensuring the necessary chemical balance of the water and providing the precise (and sometimes pricey) food your fish need to thrive. You can still reap all the therapeutic benefits an aquarium has to offer with a freshwater aquarium, so if you haven’t yet tackled fish parenthood it’s probably best to start off fresh (freshwater, that is). All fish guardians, however, need to allot at least an average of two hours of care per month for their underwater companions, according to Curty. An alternative to this responsibility is paying to have someone else do it. For a price, aquarium services companies will ensure the proper maintenance of your aquatic ecosystem and even enhance its design, tailored to your home or office space.
Of course, the corporatization of aquatic care isn’t for everyone. In the event that you do discover that your finned friend demands more work than you bargained for, you can still act humanely. Be conscious of the fact that fish are susceptible to feelings of pain. Allowing your fish to die by neglecting the aquarium or flushing him down the toilet represents an instance of animal cruelty, particularly given the many alternative ways to say farewell humanely. In the unlikely event that the source from which you bought your fish is not willing to take him back, it is your responsibility to find your fish a new home, so be resourceful. Ask your friends and family to adopt him or her, or donate your fish to a local school, hospital, or library. You can even surf online at fish and aquarium forums to find your fish a new aquatic home. Do your research and, if you must ship your fish, do so with the utmost care.
Fish are as vulnerable as they are beautiful, and when we take them away from their homes into ours, they are ours to equally treasure and protect. Even without an aquarium in your living quarters, you can still befriend scaly swimmers of every variety by taking ownership in the largest aquarium of all—the world’s seas and oceans. Most municipal aquariums offer adoption and sponsorship programs of the world’s most endangered aquatic wildlife, so you can always lend our finned friends a hand, even if you aren’t feeding them yourself.
Interested in adopting some finned friends? Check out these books to help get your started.
500 Ways to Be a Better Saltwater Fishkeeper
By Tim Hayes, Tristan Lougher, and Dick Mills
500 Ways to Be a Better Freshwater Fishkeeper
By Mary Bailey, Sean Evans, Nick Fletcher, Andy Green, Peter Hiscock, Pat Lambert, and Anna Robinson
Aquariums: The Complete Guide to Freshwater and Saltwater Aquariums
By Thierry Maître-Allain and Christian Piednoir
The Simple Guide to Freshwater Aquariums
By David E. Boruchowitz
(TFH Publications, Inc.)
The Simple Guide to Marine Aquariums
By Jeff Kurtz with David E. Boruchowitz
(TFH Publications, Inc.)
What Fish? A Buyer’s Guide to Tropical Fish
By Nick Fletcher with Other Aquarium Experts
(Barron’s Education Series, Inc.)