There’s something very meditative about cleaning a fish tank. Once every few weeks Creature, my 1.5 year old betta fish, finds herself unexpectedly scooped into the little plastic cup she came home from the local PetSmart in and swims warily back and forth watching me complete my mission. I used to have a tank in my childhood bedroom and that’s when my dad taught me the basics of maintenance; he taught me how to use a rubber hose to siphon dirty water out of a tank into the obligatory 5 gallon Home Depot bucket while preparing fresh, conditioned new water in a second bucket. Next, I take out all the accessories— the moss balls and aquarium plants (all silk because bettas have soft fins that can get torn on anything sharp or scratchy) and rinse them all off and wipe down the sides of the tank to get any algae that’s grown. A small acclimation period later and Creature finds herself back in a brighter, cleaner version of her same old world. It’s a repetitive process, with the same steps and same results every time, and something about that is soothing to me.
I got my first betta fish, Wallace, about a year after I moved to LA. I wanted a pet and betta fish are often advertised as the lowest maintenance of the low maintenance. What I didn’t expect was how much fun fish parenthood would be. Getting to pick out all the foliage, color of the gravel, find out about fun extras like real wooden logs or fake leaf hammocks just for bettas to feel happier in their homes; I was obsessed.
It was amazing to me how much of a difference this small addition to my household made to my everyday life. Having a little responsibility, a little life that was waiting for me to come home and give it love in the form of pellets and proximity, was a bastion in a year that was often difficult. I know now that my experience isn’t out of the ordinary; there are studies that show that watching a fish in a tank can lower blood pressure and improve mental wellbeing. There’s something comforting about the sight of a fish slowly circling a tank accompanied by the white noise sounds of the water filter.
Betta fish have so much personality for beings that are roughly the same size as a novelty keychain. Every betta I’ve ever had swims up to greet me whenever I enter the room. They are also, almost uniformly, extremely dramatic. When I first introduced Wallace to a tank with a filtration system (in an attempt to be the best fish parent I could be), it created a little current in the water which was apparently a world ender for Wallace. He would intentionally swim into the path of the current and then act FURIOUS when he was blown to the side by the incoming water. Wallace’s other favorite activities included intentionally jamming himself between an aquarium plant and the wall of the tank and then getting frustrated that he had to wiggle out of it (he would do this no less than 3 times a day) and lying on the floor of the tank extremely still to make me think he had died. Oh, and sometimes if his little leaf hammock came detached from the tank wall he would watch me fix it and then knock it back down again. We had a good time. Wallace died the day after I traveled home for Christmas, creating an extremely uncomfortable situation where a subletter I had only shared about ten words with had to become a fish funeral director for a pet that wasn’t hers, but in his defense this was a very funny prank and therefore very on brand for him.
Now that I work from home and my desk is set up near her tank, my current fish Creature will often gravitate towards me, keeping an eye on me as I work. She also recently caused me to waste about ten dollars on meal worm-based food I was promised was healthier and better for her but which she hated on sight and refuses to eat. Every betta fish I’ve had is this exact mix of sweet and uppity in a way I have a hard time explaining to people who have never had one.
Something that really endears me to betta fish is how resilient they are. I knew from my childhood experiences with fish and the many, many mournful trips to the local PetCo that followed that fish are fragile and the main thing that they do is die. I’ve gotten in the habit of making my fish earn their names, waiting a set period to make sure they don’t expire on me before I blow a name on them. I waited so long to name Creature that she got stuck with what is basically a non-name. With the occasional exception, bettas generally don’t require this kind of fuss. They have truly lived up to their low-maintenance reputation, in my experience. They ‘re unbothered by skipping meals, although overfeeding can be more dangerous. You can trust them, to a certain extent, to just keep swimming. I find that comforting.
I struggle to describe the connection I feel to bettas in a way that doesn’t make me sound like Tom Hanks’ character in Castaway drawing a smiley face on a volleyball. The truth is that bettas have this amazing ability to make you care more about them than you thought you would. When I made the choice for the “low-maintenance option” I didn’t anticipate breathlessly asking a pet store attendant what he thought I should do to cure Popeye or prevent The Ick, or that I would have an entire shelf full of water treatments and pH kits to make a bowl of water more perfectly imitate some gross lake somewhere.
If you’re looking for an investment in your mental health, bringing a fish home is a little work for so much reward. Having a beautiful, living display to watch in the evenings and getting the companionship of these weird little roommates has paid off in spades. Betta fish have taught me lessons along the way as well; lessons in resilience, and in empathy. If I could find compassion for and even relate to something as small and different from me as a little fish, I can absolutely find the same empathy for myself and others. Bettas create such a perfect glass in which we can see our own needs: compassion, intentionality, and sometimes, a meditative hour just spent cleaning a tank out.