A faithful friend.
Have you ever spent time looking at how animals interact? Today I received an email from a friend featuring a film clip about motherhood and exceptional mothers. It showed various mother animals nurturing baby animals of a different species: A female dog suckling a litter of kittens, a cat nursing a fawn, and a leopard giving warmth to a baby baboon whom it had orphaned by killing it’s mother for food.
All these particular stories show a most definite trait of compassion amongst animals.
They day before yesterday I was driving along Robinson Road, and was stopped at a busy cross-section, there were two Potcakes standing on the corner, obviously intending to cross the street. There were cars everywhere, trying to push through, horns blaring, and tempers rising. The dogs made several attempts to cross; finally one made it safely over, the other dithered and ran back to the original corner.
Now here is the interesting bit. The dog that got across first had started to run along the sidewalk, at some point he turned around and saw that his friend was still on the other side of the road, so HE TURNED BACK, and went and waited patiently at the corner until his friend found a gap in the traffic and joined him on the opposite side. A quick triumphant sniff and they were off, trotting side by side with determination to an unknown destination. Is that companionship, or what? (This story could open up the whole discussion on keeping your dog in your yard and the dangers of letting them roam, but that is for another article).
Up until very recently I had never actually believed that fish did much more than swim. I admit, I used to fish as a girl and thought nothing of clubbing a fish over the head when it came on board. We did have a rule that we only killed what we ate, and none of us could stand hearing the fish flip flop in misery out of water until it finally expired, hence the clubbing. The concept that a fish had any form of cognitive powers never entered my mind, that is until….The goldfish came along and joined the family.
Time to backtrack. When my son was at school at Tambearly School here in Nassau his class had a tank with four goldfish living in it. They were not very large goldfish, two were just regular goldfish, one orange and one mostly white. The other two were fancier with very wispy “floaty” fins and quite beautiful. They lived quite happily in the school environment for several years, coming back to our house for the summer and long vacations. That is where the whole thing started. When Scott left Tambearly at the end of grade 8, the goldfish came home for the summer. When September came around I just could not part with them, they had grown quite big and I had upgraded to a larger tank. They swam happily around in their tank keeping me company in the kitchen whilst I was doing my cooking. Tambearly School understood my connection to these graceful creatures and graciously relinquished them to my care.
I guess during the many months that I had been their caretakers, I had been just that, I fed them, cleaned their tank, switched their light off at night, but somehow had never really stepped up and observed them as I should have. Now that they were a part of the family, I spent more time standing in front of their tank wondering what it must be like to be in there, looking out.
Over the next 18 months the two beautifully floaty fined ones died, they were getting very big and I suspect that they must have been quite old in goldfish terms. The other two plainer goldfish just kept growing and I had to purchase yet another tank that takes up most of the counter space on one side of my kitchen, that, of course, required a larger filter, ETC… never mind, there were here to stay.
Looking out at the world.
Gradually I noticed that the white one was growing more and more dependant on the orange one, his eyes looked like they were developing cataracts, and he just looked very old. What was increasingly interesting was how the orange one was looking out for him. Whenever I would put food into the tank the orange fish would go over to the white fish, (who was a bit smaller) and push and nudge him until he was over the area the food had fallen. The orange fish would watch over the white fish until he had eaten, then he would go after his own. This “relationship” existed all through the day, they would float around the tank side by side and when resting on the bottom would be fin-to-fin touching.
This happy companionship continued for a good year or more until the white fish began to fail. In spite of all my most valiant efforts, Internet information, phone calls to vets, books, visits to pet stores, and the administration of medicine. My little white fish friend got sicker and sicker. I did not remove him from the tank because, when I saw how closely the orange fish went up to him, and how they were touching each other constantly, I could not bring myself to separate them. That was when I realized that I had accepted that fish could create bonds and companionship.
The next few days were heart wrenching with the orange fish gently pushing his friend up to the surface every now and then. Finally the white one passed onto fish heaven. My poor orange fish sat at the bottom of the tank with his buddy, I gently lifted the dead fish out of the tank to bury him. (Yes, I bury my friends, not flush them down the toilet, can’t bring myself to do that, sorry). Once the dead fish was out of the tank, to my amazement the orange fish when quite berserk, he stated swimming around the tank wildly, he banged into the glass sides, he went back and forth as if searching for something, this extraordinary behavior continued intermittently for some time. I was absolutely flabbergasted and honestly did not now what to do.
When I don’t know what to do with animals, I always do the same thing: phone my friend Dr. Val Grant. I told him what was going on and asked him if I was way off base assuming that I had a grieving goldfish on my hands. Val told me that in his experiences with animals, all creatures are able to build up bonds with one another. These two fish had inhabited the same limited space, though a relatively big tank, together for years, they had grown to where they depended on one another and each other’s existence was part the others. That was really all I needed to hear, the next morning bright and early I was in my car on the way to town to buy my orange friend some new friends to cheer him up. I was unable to find any goldfish quite as big, in fact that are significantly smaller, but they were the biggest I could find on short order in Nassau. I was just a touch apprehensive that they may be met with aggression when introduced into the tank. My fears were totally unfounded. Patience and Courage settled in very quickly. I rigged up an area behind some conch shells where they could go but the larger fish could not, in case they were intimidated. The first day or two, Patience almost exclusively hang out there. Courage on the other hand was far more daring and kept poking his head out onto the main tank. My orange friend was curious but cautious. The day passed by uneventfully, feeding time came and went with no mishaps. I made sure plenty of food fell behind the conch shells. By the next morning Courage had come out and was swimming around with his new friend, by the end of the week Patience had joined them. My orange goldfish appears to be at peace. Does he remember his former friend, or have these new fish provided the companionship he needs? I will perhaps never know, however he is eating well, and has not repeated that frenetic behavior he exhibited the day the white fish died.
When you really think about it, it really is very conceited of us to assume that we are the only creatures on the face of the planet who have feelings, compassion, and are able to bond to each other. It is an amazingly satisfying exercise to watch the animals around us and to be able to conclude just how well they can communicate with each other.
About the author: Kim Aranha grew up in the Berry Islands with her first dog, a beloved potcake named “Friendly” (who was anything but!). First educated at home, and then in boarding school in Switzerland, Kim moved to Rome, Italy in 1974 to pursue a career in the dramatic arts and ended up working as an interpreter. She moved back to The Bahamas in 1980, and now lives in Nassau with her husband Paul, and their two teenaged sons. Kim has 4 dogs, 5 fish (1 Beta, 4 Goldfish), 10 turtles (6 babies, 4 adolescents), 1 Asian box turtle and 4 Budgerigars. Her idea of relaxing is being home to take care of all her pets. Kim is President of the board of the Bahamas Humane Society. Kim can be contacted at