Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Fish Of Death

Or at least "Fish Of Extreme Pain".
Soon after I graduated I decided to try to develop a sideline in fish medicine as way to  make myself more useful to the practice. Or at least less useless. The sensible among you will immediately see the logical flaws in trying to get people to bring their pet fish into the clinic. There are several such flaws. But my employers, bless them, were indulgent and patient with me. To give myself some credit, I was nothing if not enthusiastic. I made sure I had the best text books and I set to work writing brochures on a variety of fish health subjects. And then I waited for patients... and waited...

Until one day the owner of a nearby pet shop came in carrying a large ice cream pail. I'll call her Carla because that's her name and because even on the very off chance that she'll read this I don't think she'd be at all fazed by an implicit accusation of attempted murder.
"What have you got in the bucket Carla?"
"A fish! Actually two of them."
Imagine my excitement. Just imagine it.
I strode over to Carla and her bucket. Not walked, but strode. I peered into the bucket. Two fish indeed: a large, roughly eggplant sized, colourful fish with bold orange and white stripes and long feather-like things sticking out all over it, and a small, roughly walnut sized, dull brown coloured fish. There were two really interesting things about this scene. The first was that the big fish was a lionfish. (More on why that's really interesting in a moment.) The second was that the little fish was head-first halfway into the lionfish's mouth.

"Carla, that's a lionfish!"
"Yes, it's really expensive and it's choking on that stupid catfish!"
Which fish was more stupid struck me as a debatable point.
"I see..."
"Can you get the catfish out?"

So this is where I should explain what's really interesting about lionfish. Those cool looking feathery things are actually sharp spines (easily sharp enough to slice exam gloves) and are covered in venom. The venom has an entertaining array of potential effects including, and I quote, "extreme pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, breathing difficulties, convulsions, dizziness, redness on the affected area, headache, numbness, paresthesia (pins and needles), heartburn, diarrhea, and sweating. Rarely, such stings can cause temporary paralysis of the limbs, heart failure, and even death". Well, only "rarely" death, so that's ok.

"Well, can you?"
The lionfish actually looked distressed. The catfish was presumably even more distressed, but it was hard to tell.
There was no way to grasp the lionfish without touching the venomous spines and the standard aquarium wrangler's net wouldn't help, so, after a bit of pondering I came up with an idea. I found two long pieces of wood - this was a while ago, so I don't remember exactly, but they might have been leftover molding from a reno - and a large pair of surgical forceps. I wielded the wood pieces with my left hand like giant chopsticks to restrain the lionfish while carefully submerging my right hand with the forceps to firmly grasp the tail of the catfish.
Deep breath.
Then I yanked.
The catfish was free! However, I am sad to report that it did not live to enjoy its freedom. The catfish immediately succumbed to its injuries, or to the shock of the whole unpleasant event.  But the lionfish survived. And I survived. A mortality rate of only 33%. Not bad for a novice fish vet.

But that was pretty much the end of my short-lived fish vet career.

Years later we were in the Cayman Islands and met a local with a boat full of lionfish. It turns out that they are an invasive and aggressive species that is decimating native fish populations. The government there was paying a bounty on them. And they are steadily spreading northwards...

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