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I Don’t Think Kids Are Learning Much Of Anything By Neglecting Their Pet Goldfish

Mar 11, 2019

My friend Jim hasn’t seen his daughter’s fish in a few days and he is starting to wonder whether to put up missing posters around the neighbourhood. I volunteered to help, of course.

You know the kind of posters I'm talking about — a blurry photocopy, complete with adorable photo of the MIA pet (usually a cat), contact information and a tagline that tugs at the heartstring.


Relevant Reading: Our Family's Great Pet Debate


When Jim says "missing," I do know he means his daughter’s fish is dead and he hasn’t told her yet. I still really like his poster campaign idea. Because it stands to highlight what I believe is a much broader problem.

Imagine how our neighbourhoods would look if every missing goldfish led to a poster campaign. Our utility poles and grocery store bulletin boards would be encrusted with the things. And, yes, I do use the word encrusted because it calls to mind those unscourable calcium deposits that trouble subaqueous castles and fishbowl rims throughout this great country.

How Many Goldfish Need to Die?

Solid numbers on fish ownership in Canada are hard to come by. Statistics Canada does not track fish kept as pets. Veterinary journals and industry surveys suggest something like 10 per cent of households keep fish, while over half keep some kind of companion animal. That’s similar to numbers for the United States produced by the American Pet Products Association. By their somewhat grizzly estimates, Americans keep 139 million freshwater fish.

That compares to the 94 million cats and 90 million dogs who are found in roughly half of all households. In other words, a relatively small number of people seem to own an inordinately large number of freshwater fish. I’m gonna take a wild stab here and suggest that we are looking at high fish, um, turnover, rather than high-capacity aquariums. At least in a lot of these housesholds.  

'When my son’s one and only goldfish died, I quietly flushed it down the toilet.'

Put another way, many of those fish might have gone "missing" just like my friend Jim’s has.

I am old enough to have watched the famous Mr. Roger’s Neighbourhood episode "Death of a Goldfish" (in rerun, of course). It is a wonderful piece of television. Like Mr. Rogers suggested, all parents could use the death of a fish to speak frankly about end-of-life, acknowledge their child’s anxieties and admit their own experiences of grief through the relatively safe cipher of a pet.

That's all well and good, but I also know that I am not Mr. Rogers. When my son’s one and only goldfish died, I quietly flushed it down the toilet. Because I had taken over responsibility for the fish, it took him some time to notice this. When he did, I told him that the fish was dead and that we wouldn’t be buying a new one. It wasn’t the kind of great parenting moment I aspire to, but it’s the kind my kids get more often than not.


Relevant Reading: Quiz — Choose the Right Pet For Your Family


I think a lot of parents bring a goldfish into their home with the best intentions. They want their child to learn responsibility, but they want low stakes, and they don’t want the grief, burden or expense of a charismatic animal like a cat or dog.

My own experience suggests that the teachings are exactly the opposite. My son didn't nurture and care for the goldfish's life. Instead, the low stakes approach positioned the fish as a more of a cheap, disposable bobble.

This is why I like my friend Jim’s "missing fish" poster campaign so much. I’m pretty sure he’s just joking, but a town papered in missing fish posters sounds like just the kind of visual recognition we need to break away from the nasty parental delusion many of us have bought into, including me: that keeping goldfish teaches our kids about responsibility.

Because, eventually, they all go missing. 

Article Author Rob Thomas
Rob Thomas

Read more from Rob here.

Rob Thomas is a writer, editor and a work-at-home dad. Brood, a book of poems inspired by his experiences of fatherhood, was launched at the Ottawa International Writers Festival in 2014. His journalism has appeared in places such as Ottawa Magazine, the United Church Observer, Canadian Running and on CBC radio and television. He is also a founding member of an Ottawa social club for dads called The Ugly Mothers.

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