How to keep that goldfish from the carnival alive
LOS ANGELES -- Don Hurst figures he's given away millions of goldfish at carnivals over the last 25 years.
Fairgoers win a fish in a plastic bag by tossing a Ping-Pong ball into a bowl. With Hurst selling balls eight for a dollar and 20 for $2, the chances of winning are pretty good.
Hurst thinks most of the fish he hands out make it home. But how long they live after that depends on how they are cared for, with optimal conditions including a tank with a cover, the right type of water, a filtration system and sunlight.
Pete Ponzio, president of the American Goldfish Association, says even the trip home can be harmful. Bouncing around in those little plastic bags can produce stressful vibrations that break down immune systems and cause disease, he explained.
Water is the next problem. Putting a goldfish in chlorinated tap water, bottled or distilled water, or water that is too acidic or alkaline, can be deadly, Ponzio said.
Ponzio recommends buying a solution at a pet store that removes chlorine, adds nutrients and minerals, or measures acidity.
Ideal water temperature is about 70 degrees. Place the goldfish in its bag in the tank before releasing the fish to avoid more stress.
Goldfish, members of the carp family, produce a lot of waste, so you will also need a filtering system. The waste contains ammonia, which is toxic to them.
For the new goldfish owner, Ponzio recommends a 2- to 5-gallon plastic aquarium kit with a filter, air pump and chlorine remover, which will run about $30. But systems range from expensive deluxe power filters that perform mechanical, chemical and biological filtration, to cheap sponge filters that allow bacteria to colonize and do the work.
Change 10 percent of the fish's water each week. You don't have to move the fish, he said.
Goldfish are notorious for jumping out of their bowls, so make sure your tank is covered, or cover the bowl with a net.
"Putting one in a bowl or pond is a suicide waiting to happen," Ponzio said.
Putting a second fish in the bowl can also keep them from jumping out. "They need buddies," he said.
Goldfish need natural sunlight, too, or their colors will fade, Ponzio said.
Ponzio feeds his fish once a day -- either flakes or pellets. Freeze-dried worms, brine shrimp, beef heart or algae are always welcome snacks, he said.
Ponzio also says that contrary to popular belief, goldfish cannot be taught synchronized swimming or other tricks. They do not have the memory for it.
In some states, goldfish giveaways are banned. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals all oppose awarding animals as prizes.
But Hurst says he does not see why giving fish away to be cared for as pets is considered inhumane, when many goldfish are sold as feeder fish for other animals.
He estimates that he gives away between 4,000 and 7,000 fish a week as he and his wife follow the fair circuit April to November through Mississippi, Louisiana, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Kansas, Tennessee and Alabama.
"We make it easy to win. The kids are laughing, the parents are clapping and I am egging them on," said Hurst, who yells "Fishy friend!" and high-fives each winner.
Hurst's fish are an inch or two long and weigh a few ounces. But goldfish can grow to 20 inches and weigh 3 pounds, said Ponzio, whose hobby started when his dad won a goldfish at a fair 50 years ago.
Goldfish can also live more than 20 years, Ponzio added. Guinness World Records says the oldest known goldfish was won at a fair by a 7-year-old boy, Peter Hand, in Yorkshire, England, in 1956. The fish named Tish died in 1999 at the age of 43.
But goldfish rarely get the care needed to sustain a long life. If you want a long-lived fish, Ponzio suggests guppies or Siamese fighting fish instead. "They live in little puddles in Thailand and Cambodia in really gunky water, so they can survive just about anything," he said.
In contrast, Ponzio added, "to care for a goldfish right, you have to put some effort into it."