Design by Ally Payne

Does anyone else remember Darla Sherman? You know, the girl with the braces holding the dead goldfish in that tiny plastic bag in “Finding Nemo”? If you can recall her in your mind’s eye (or your nightmares), you may have been deeply scarred by the pig-tailed child like I was. If you had to click the link (sorry, late warning: JUMP SCARE), I hope you remember her impact. As children, we learned not to tap on fish tank glass, not to shake bags of live fish and, above all, not to be a menace of a pet-owner.

The 2003 movie may have made us more sympathetic toward clownfish and the odd royal blue tang, but it did not make the world immediately kinder to goldfish specifically (like the one Darla poses with in her dentist picture). During recent years, in partial response to new research concerning fish intelligence, the conversation surrounding pet fish has transitioned into discussing the reality of keeping fish as happy, satisfied and, most importantly, living pets.

Fish, and goldfish in particular, are not the easy, uninvolved house decor-friendly animals that characters like Darla Sherman have made them out to be. For decades, goldfish have been given out as prizes at carnivals and fairs in tiny plastic bags. Usually, when players win live-animal prizes, they are unequipped in supplies to handle the responsibility of caring for them. Goldfish require specific habitation, and their treatment as barely-living dolls is both unrealistic to their needs and generally abusive.

As the needs of fish to live happy and healthy lives have been voiced, many carnivals and fairs have pledged to stop giving away live animals as prizes. Goldfish are not easy-to-keep animals, nor are they the right choice for a first pet (if you aren’t looking for commitment).     

Goldfish have been pets for centuries. They are considered good luck (like orange ladybugs and monarch butterflies), though the once gold-toned fish are now more orange due to a mutation that occurred during selective breeding. Most species of goldfish need 20-gallon tanks (which require a lot of space), specific chemical treatments in their water and devoted cleaning. They have been recorded living into their mid-40s, and often reach their 20s and 30s when cared for properly in outdoor environments.

The average age they reach in smaller bowls (think Carlos K. Krinklebine from “The Cat in the Hat”) is only about five years old, but when severely mistreated, like many are, they often have a much shorter lifespan.

Not to brag, but I once had an angelfish named Lily, and she lived to the ripe, old (angelfish) age of 12 years old. As a semi-evil but beloved part of our family, she was buried in the backyard, and a small funeral service was held in her honor. My sister and I witnessed her swallow some of the other fish whole more than once, but I admit to crying at that funeral. That being said, I have never had goldfish due to the possibility that they could grow to be too big for their tank. 

Mistreated goldfish often do not live to grow into their full size. Abuse toward goldfish has long been excused by their “3 second memories,” but, in actuality, they can remember at least the last three months, if not years. They can be taught to do tricks, eat from hands, recognize the people that feed them and recognize other fish, even after periods of separation. 

Goldfish are far from simple creatures. There are more than 200 different species of goldfish, primarily of the specially-bred “fancy goldfish” type. Goldfish come in a range of colors, from the classic vibrant orange, to spotted red and white, deep violet-blue, cow-print brown, lemony-yellow and even matte black. While goldfish often change colors in the first few years of life, goldfish that pale in color or turn completely white can indicate issues with nutrition, lack of light, chemical imbalances within the tank or depression.

Many of the most popular pet stores, like PetSmart and Petco, are known for treating fish horribly. Alongside goldfish, betta fish receive mistreatment due to false information — they are sometimes categorized as decoration for offices or put into tiny, ornamental vases, because pet stores relay that they can survive in puddles and need little to no care or space. Betta fish have particular diets and need a tank of at least 2.5 gallons with room to breathe at the top; they cannot be left in plastic containers like those in which they are sold.

Goldfish not only have a history of the horrific “goldfish bowls,” but also an even stranger hazing ritual and competition-based past. Most popular in 1939 and continuing even today, live goldfish have been swallowed for betting purposes, record-setting competitions and even as initiation into sororities and fraternities (like that scene in “Euphoria”).

Fish cannot be regarded as room decorations or jokes. Spaces and equipment for new cat, dog and reptile pet owners are often planned out before the animal arrives, yet fish are not always treated with the same respect or care. Goldfish, while beautiful and relatively cheap at a pet store or carnival, should not be kept in unventilated glass bowls on kitchen countertops.

As we learn more about them and what allows them to survive and thrive in indoor and outdoor habitats, their needs should not be ignored. While we watched Darla Sherman in “Finding Nemo” frighten fish through her mistreatment (hopefully, she was simply unaware), we must ensure the living things we bring into our homes are receiving the level of care they need. Do not buy a goldfish if you are unprepared to care for one, and always do your research before making any decision about a new pet.

Statement Contributor Giselle Mills can be reached at