Mr. B’s Story

an article by Robin Lovell

Mr. B’s story and what would eventually lead to my introduction to African Cichlids, and even, just recently, cause my ten year old son to refer to me as a ‘fish person’, (his tone implying that this was something he would seek to avoid in his own life), began a few years ago with a call from the secretary at his elementary school.

Joe had won the raffle for the goldfish—was that all right?

I thought: Oh No. Not a fish. It’s not that I don’t love animals: I’ve had all sorts of pets, from cats and dogs to toads and turtles. But not fish. I’ve never wanted a fish.

Well actually when I was nine I wanted fish. I had an aquarium for a short time.  It was a disturbing experience. I can’t recall the types of fish I had, only that they all seemed to be either dead or half eaten most of the time and the fact that their eyes looked the same whether they were dead or alive gave me the willies. 

I have two distinct memories of that tank. Cute little big eyed baby fish that never grew into adult fish and the swordtail that I found behind the bookcase, weeks after he had vanished from the tank.  I remember staring at his stiff, dust covered arched body, being careful not to hold him too tight lest his tail or part of his head snap off or disintegrate, and feeling confused. I wasn’t sad. 

He just didn’t look like he’d ever been alive and by then in my soon to be ending fish career I’d had come to the queasy conclusion that it is just as normal for a pet fish to be dead as it is for it be alive, and that judging from their lack of any kind of expression the fish themselves were fine with this arrangement. Fish, I decided, gave me the creeps.

But this wasn’t about fish, or how I felt about fish. My son had won. His name had been picked over every other kid in his school. He was the winner.   So Goldie, a rather nice looking Oranda Red Cap came home in a peanut butter jar. I have to admit, I liked him right away. He had nice eyes. They seemed to be on a never ceasing search for food, but they didn’t look dead—or at least I felt they’d look different if/when he did die.

Within a few days Goldie was living in an Eclipse 6 gallon tank complete with one of those opening and closing treasure chests and fluorescent plants and gravel.  Then the search for tank mates was on.  Joe would have gone with any of the hundreds of goldfish we looked at but I had been reading about goldfish, and asking questions about goldfish and spending way too much time watching Goldie swim around his tank and found there were too many things to consider to just pick out any old goldfish. Besides, above all, I really wanted to find one with alive eyes.

Unfortunately Goldie never got a tank mate as he died after only four months. (This story is about Mr. B, a Cichlid so I’m going to try to ease away from the goldfish at this point and skip telling about everything I did and all the people and pet stores and professors at Universities I called to try to save Goldie. Just enough to say, I really, really tried.)

Joe and I were devastated.   I think it was at this point that Joe let me run on into fish craziness without him. He didn’t say so but I knew he was afraid of one day finding one of our fish sucked onto the filter tube, something that had horrified him at the fish store. He’d beg me to go tell someone, expecting to see me return surrounded by concerned employees, and perhaps even a police officer to arrest who ever was at fault. It disturbed him that nothing even close to this ever happened. It was the same thing that bothered me about pet fish when I was his age. They could be dead or alive and everyone seemed fine with this.  I didn’t blame Joe for how he felt.

 But we still did some fish things together—like buying fish.  A few days after Goldie died we went out and got some more goldfish. Eventually we put them, or it might have been the ones we got to replace them, into a 30-gallon tank. We got three 2-gallon tanks for three betas and Joe got some neon tetras for the Eclipse, which we continued to call his tank. 

Except for replacement fish, I think that would have been it on fish, but then a friend called wanting to know if I’d take her 55-gallon set up.  Her family had gotten too busy and the tank had been without care, and very little food, (they’d resorted to throwing entire slices of white bread into the tank), for many months. No one even knew how many fish were still in there.

After running all over my house with a tape measure and trying, without success to talk myself out of the idea I said yes to the tank but no to the fish. I was going to try a saltwater tank. All I knew about Cichlids was that they were in the “Aggressive” section at the fish store. Didn’t want that.

I went to have a look at the tank, just to double check it’s measurements and condition.  My attention was immediately drawn to a massive glowing white orb. I knelt down and stared into the murky brown water and saw that it was the filter tube, which was smothered in uneaten bread.   I was just about to turn away when suddenly from out of the brown gloom a bright blue Cichlid appeared. He was big; I couldn’t even see all of him but he looked at me. It was different than how the goldfish look at me: Food! Food! Food! And nothing like how the tetras look--I'm not even sure if they've ever actually tried to look through the glass.

No, this fish was different. There was something in his expression—hope?-- definitely intelligence,  that made me stop and look back at him.

I told my husband about ‘the look’. Normally he only takes part in the fish activities when a tank needs to be shimmed or moved, but he stopped what he was doing, his face filled with a mixture of confusion and concern and said: why can’t you take the fish?

Well, why not? And that was all I needed to find I wanted the fish, however many of them there were, more than anything I could think of. I couldn’t stop thinking about how the Cichlid had looked at me, but it wasn’t just that.  It was the right thing to do. I’d be giving those fish a good home—a great home. I’d be helping my friend who really didn’t want to bring them back to the fish store.  The decision was made. I felt really good about it.

There was only the blue cichlid and a pleco—all the others—ten or more fish, were gone.  I used the ugly brown lava rock, (why would anyone put that in a tank, I thought), and the equally ugly brown gravel that came with the tank only to assure a quicker cycling. I covered the gravel with a nice clean layer of small rounded rocks that I’d just bought. The two distinct layers of substrate actually looked pretty good up against the glass from the outside. I went to bed thinking how decorating and fixing up the tank is one of the best parts of owning a tank, especially when you just happen on a great idea working with what you already have.

The next morning my first thought was that the filter had gone whacky and had somehow sent powerful blasts of water directed at various spots on the bottom resulting in my decorative layers of substrate being blown into piles—some of them quite high.  There were actually places where the rocks had been cleaned away right down to the bare glass bottom.

And then, from under a pile of lava rock came a spray of gravel. A moment later the Cichlid appeared with one of my nice rounded rocks in his mouth.  He glanced at me grimly as one does when confronted with idleness in the midst of performing a difficult and important task. He spit out the rock and went back for more.

I was shocked. A fish that had something it liked, even had to do besides eating and looking for food. I don’t remember how long I watched him that day but all’s I could think was: I’ve got to get more of these fish!

This is where things started to go wrong for me and Mr. B. If I had known then what I know now, I would have known that I have to know what I have before I can have more. I would have known that just because someone sells African Cichlids, that doesn’t mean they know or care anything about them. And I would have known to stay away from tanks labeled Assorted African Cichlids.

This particular fish store had a long, triple tank high wall of nothing but Assorted African Cichlids. I described my current set up to the seemingly knowledgeable storeowner.  He assured me I’d be fine with any fish, as long as it was an African Cichlid. It had to be an African Cichlid, he stressed. He didn’t say anything about aggression. I remember thinking that the problems with aggression must happen only to people who don’t know you have to make sure all your fish are African Cichlids. I was so glad to know this. This was going to be easier than picking out Goldfish! I spent a dreamy couple of hours choosing three African Cichlids: two lion head, (identified by me weeks later, not by the store), and a rather bland looking brownish purple one that I chose because he had the best fish face I’d ever seen.  I named him Smiley because he looked like he was smiling. 

Mr. B stopped what he was doing the moment Smiley and the others dropped into the tank.  His movements became faster and more agitated as he swooped around the tank and very soon, like in about five minutes he was chasing Smiley all over the place.  I had to close the cover for fear that one or both of them would come soaring out. You could hear the water splashes and thumps against the glass from all over the downstairs.  I was thankful for all the ugly lava rock that gave the new fish somewhere to hide.

By the next morning Mr B had a new job: Tank patrol. Back and forth he’d swim making sure that nothing more than nose-tips and shadows protruded from the various caves. When he got tired of that he’d perform a closer inspection by wriggling into one of the tiny crevices that had previously never interested him. Occasionally he’d flush out an intruder who luckily had an easy time getting away since Mr. B had to do some careful maneuvering to keep from getting stuck. When he did emerge he usually had a mouthful of gravel, which he’d spit out with a toss of his head as if to say, this is my cave, too.

Days went by. I kept thinking things would change—hoping the fish would work something out. I called the fish store and explained the situation to the same seemingly knowledgeable storeowner. Yes, yes, some mbuna are very aggressive and no, no, if you’ve re-arranged the tank, which I had, then there’s really nothing you can do. Why don’t you just bring the big blue one in and trade for something else?

That’s what I wanted to do. I blamed everything on Mr. B, (B not for big or blue, but for bad). I felt terrible for Smiley who had no life except for a few quick zips around the tank at feeding time.

But I just couldn’t dump Mr. B—not yet, anyways. Part of it was that I felt obligated to my friend. Despite how the tank had ended up under her care, she was and is a true animal lover. I said I’d give her fish a home. I also couldn’t get around the fact that it really was Mr. B’s tank.  He’d survived the months of brown water and white bread, (and okay, maybe I’d begun to wonder if he might have had something to do with the disappearance of all his former tank mates), but I just wasn’t ready to give up.  So I kept trying. 

On one particularly turbulent afternoon I decided to catch Mr. B and put him in a bucket—maybe break the cycle of violence, give the other fish a chance to see the rest of the tank--something like that. Armed with two nets I chased him for over an hour. Several times I had the sensation of being somewhere other than my own living room—like out at sea in a small boat, as Mr. B’s slapping tail and body sent huge sprays of water into my face, temporarily blinding me and forcing me to turn my head to breath. I could not catch him. For the rest of that day, and the next, every time I made a move even distantly in sight of the tank, opening the refrigerator, running to answer the phone, Mr. B would hide.

 I was amazed at his memory, and his eyesight, and his ability to recognize me over my family, but it also made me feel bad. My fish didn’t like me. I didn’t like him. He didn’t like the other fish and they all seemed destined to spend their lives living under chunk of lava.  I began to wonder if I was getting close to deciding for the second time in my life that fish were not for me.

I called the fish store—again. Even though they hadn’t been very helpful I didn’t have anyone else to ask. I hadn’t discovered the MCH or any of the other Cichlid websites. I didn’t know, and would never-ever have guessed that there were people, lots of intelligent, educated people all over the world that were into these fish, African Cichlids, way beyond what I could imagine and that ALL of them had numerous, near lake-size tanks full of these fish all over their house. There were clubs and websites and forums and best tank contests and even evaluations. You could learn about how to build the ideal African Cichlid tank, tank stand, filter system, background and more—and you weren’t limited to just one person’s opinion of how to do any of it. Some of these people actually went to Africa and swam with the African Cichlids and discovered different kinds and brought them home with them. I had no idea of any of this.

For now I only had the seemingly knowledgeable fish storeowner and I was about to not even have him. I asked how long Cichlids typically live, thinking—actually hoping I’m ashamed to say—that perhaps Mr. B was very old and didn’t have long to live or maybe that the aggressive ones can suddenly mellow with old age. But before I’d even identified myself as the person who’d been calling about the aggressive blue cichlid, the seemingly knowledgeable storeowner recognized my voice. Look, he said, just flush the fish, tell your kid it died, and get some more fish.

Well that was the wrong thing to say to me. First of all, I never lie to my kid, and second, I never flush fish, not even the dead ones. We put them in our stream. That way, I tell Joe, God can just scoop them up further down stream if they really are dead, and if per chance they were just looking dead then at least they’d have some hope in the stream.

I don’t remember exactly how I came up with the idea of putting Mr. B in jail. Sort of a tank within the tank.  With my husbands help we drilled about fifty large holes in one of those two-gallon acrylic critter-tanks and placed it on the bottom of the 55-gallon. The idea was that if Mr. B could just get use to being around the other fish, and vise-versa then perhaps he’d stop chasing and they’d stop running and no one would remember what all the fuss was about. It seemed possible since Mr. B didn’t have any problems with the pleco.

For three weeks Mr. B chased his tankmates from within his jail with no less ferocity and intent than he had when he was free—maybe even more. We were astounded at how wide he could open his mouth and how long he would keep it open if one of the intruders lingered.  The other fish got comfortable with the new arrangement right away and while the little lion heads still considered it wise to zip past the jail as quickly as possible—Mr. B frothing and snarling in pursuit—Smiley did not. My husband said he thought Smiley was being unfair and might even be teasing Mr. B by continually choosing to hang around the jail while Mr. B had a meltdown less than a half-inch away.

It did seem that way. Smiley’s smile had begun to look more like a sneer.  I’d noticed, too that Mr. B’s rich blue color had turned a fainter blue-gray since he’d been incarcerated. I had to feed him with a turkey baster, blasting the food through one of the holes, which I had learned to do fairly well but how would I ever be able to show someone else how to do it if we went away? I couldn’t, and besides, how much longer was I going to keep him in there? It wasn’t working and I was suddenly struck with how unfair it was.  I let him out and the other fish had 15 seconds to find a cave they liked. Nothing had changed.

That was it. I decided that if my friend didn’t object too strongly I’d take Mr. B to another fish store. No one could say I hadn’t tried and after explaining not even half of all I tried she gave me her blessing. (And probably got off the phone feeling thankful that she had those fish for so many years and somehow escaped whatever fish insanity I had contracted.)

But then I couldn’t do it. I found the MCH and some of the other Cichlid web sites and had begun to learn a few things. Keeping Cichlids involved way more than getting the ph right and deciding how many fish your tank could hold. You couldn’t just go out and buy a bunch of them and expect it to work out.

These fish had their own way of behaving and doing things that yes, gave them what we call personality, but unlike people, they were unable to change their behavior. I learned that Mr. B wasn’t being cruel; he was just being a Cichlid. He was the king of the tank and the more I read the more I understood that as far as kings go, he wasn’t even that bad of a king.  He hadn’t killed or even hurt anyone. He just didn’t want the other fish swimming around. Unreasonable, but it wasn’t his fault. It was mine.  

So I got out my tape measure and before I knew what hit me I was dizzy with new tank mania. Here I was thinking I had one too many fish, when in reality my problem was I had one too few tanks.  

Mr. B now has his own tank, right next to my computer and I love listening to the steady clink and roll of rock as I work at my desk. Eventually I want him to have some fish company. There’s a purpose to all his rock moving, I know, and he probably isn’t that young, and he probably spent all his time in the years before I got him moving rock. No body should spit that many rocks without something to show for it.    But first I have to at least learn what type of blue with black stripe cichlid he is. (And the more I read the more I realize how difficult that may be). 

Shortly after Mr. B’s departure Smiley crowned himself king and while he allows more swimming than Mr. B did, he can still be unreasonable.


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