It has recently been brought to my notice that a practice I once thought abolished, or at the very least, no longer pursued, is in fact still very much in evidence. I am talking about the unrestrained giving of animals, in particular Goldfish, as prizes at fairgrounds and the like.

Obvious dangers to the animal in question are inherent in this kind of practice. It would, however, be remiss of me not to point out, before I go any further, that there will be a number of recipients of these animals who are either conversant with the needs of their new charges or, at least, are prepared to read, study and ask questions to ensure they provide the proper and necessary care for them. It is also the case that some aquatic retailers will offer sound advice to the novice when they make their purchases.

The chances are, however, that the winner has very little, or no idea of how to care for the animal. He or she may be good at darts or hoop-la, but that does not qualify them as fish-keepers. Do they really care what happens to their new charge? In all probability, when they take their newly acquired Goldfish home with them they will have absolutely nothing suitable in which to accommodate it. So ... what do they do with it? Those with a little knowledge might consider a bucket, a washing-up bowl, possibly a large jar or something similar as a temporary home. Others, with no knowledge of even the fish’s most basic needs, might simply leave it in the plastic bag in which it came ... “Fish live in water don’t they? They must breathe water. They don’t need air!”

Assuming the poor fish survives this initial temporary housing, including the probable immersion in new and untreated tap water regardless of temperature, chemistry or chlorine content, the next step is to provide a more permanent home for it. “Now, what do Goldfish live in? Goldfish bowls, of course. Everybody knows that!” So it is off down the local pet shop to buy a Goldfish bowl. “No thanks, we don’t want the bigger one ... it’s too expensive ... the Goldfish was only a prize anyway, it didn’t cost me anything. I’ll take the smaller one. Besides which, that will leave me enough money to buy some of that lovely blue and pink gravel and a nice plastic weed – that will make Flipper feel comfy and at home. Oh, I’d better have a pot of your cheapest fish food as well!”

So then it is off home to put little Flipper in his new bowl. “Look, he’s pleased to see me – he is up at the surface opening and closing his mouth saying ‘hello’!” The next job is to assemble all the goodies. “Why would I want to wash the gravel – it looks perfectly clean to me?” Under the tap goes the bowl, “The more water the merrier, fishes like water, don’t they?” The bowl is filled right to the top, thereby drastically reducing the surface area of the water which is essential for gas exchange where the water absorbs oxygen from the atmosphere.

Little Flipper is now settled in his new home. He has somehow managed to survive the chlorine in the water which has severely damaged the protective mucus covering on his body. And this chlorine has finally dissipated into the atmosphere. He has become accustomed to the chemistry of the water and is on the mend. He now faces one of two further dangers. The chances are his new owner has not bothered reading the feeding instructions on the pot of fish food and is probably severely over-feeding. He or she is probably giving additional ‘treats’ such as bread etc. between feeding. The wife or husband, and maybe the kids as well, will come home and be keen to take part in Flipper’s care – into the bowl goes another lot of food. There is almost certainly no filtration on the bowl and, as fast as Flipper might eat, he cannot possibly consume all that they have given him. The resultant excess food is beginning to decay on the layer of gravel covering the bottom of the bowl. The water is rapidly becoming polluted both by the decaying food and, of course, by the natural production of ammonia and other matter from Flipper himself. The obvious danger here is that the resulting toxins in the water will poison Flipper. If these kill him, his new owner will no doubt have observed the uneaten food in the bowl and will probably have surmised that Flipper was unwell anyway and was not eating his food. He or she will have lost their fish and will not even have learned anything in the process.

If Flipper manages to survive this, he now has to face the possibility of the second of these further dangers. His owner will begin to notice the build up of decaying matter on the gravel and the probable dirty or cloudy appearance of the water and decide it is time for Flipper to have a clean out. What to do first? Top up a jar or plastic bag, probably with fresh water from the tap, and drop Flipper in there for now. Drain off all the old water from the bowl and fill the sink with new tap water. Tip the gravel, plastic plant and whatever else into the sink and give it a good wash (hopefully not in soapy water although I imagine this does occasionally happen). Scrub out the inside of the bowl replace the decor in the bowl and top up with fresh tap water (we have been here before).

The scenario I have created here may appear a little cynical but this kind of thing can, and does happen. The big question is, how can we prevent it? The easiest answer is to legislate against the giving of all animals as prizes. This would certainly work. The threat of heavy fines would, of course, encourage fair ground stall-holders to look elsewhere for cheap prizes. And this may be the only solution in the end.

I do have one problem with this. I was first introduced to fish-keeping by just such a ‘win’ at a fairground. I was very fortunate that I talked to the person in the pet shop where I purchased the necessary equipment and they introduced me to a member of my local aquarists’ society. He was kind enough to spend some time giving me valuable advice, and my first Goldfish, Eric (OK, so Monty Python was in its heyday at the time and I was a fan), did survive and, as a result, I gradually learned how to keep him properly (along with his friend provided by this same helpful person – but only when he was certain I was ready for a second occupant in my tank – not Goldfish bowl).

In the fullness of time I set up a second and then a third tank, began keeping tropical fish as well as my Goldfish and, some years later, joined my local society. Tragically, by the time I got around to joining, my early advisor in the hobby had died of cancer. But I digress. My point is that, if it were not for my original prize, I would almost certainly never have been involved at all in a hobby which I now thoroughly enjoy and which I find particularly rewarding. And I am quite certain that I am not the only one to be introduced to our hobby in this manner.

The difficulty lies in finding a way to prevent this unnecessary cruelty to the animals while still encouraging newcomers to our hobby. Perhaps stall-holders at fairs etc. could be educated (or even legally forced) to warn their prize winners that they are taking on the responsibilities of caring for a live animal. They could be made include with the ‘prize’ a small leaflet or brochure outlining the basic needs for the animal’s care and advising further research by the new owners. This need not be anything fancy or costly to the stall-holder – a simple photocopy of an approved document would suffice. Even if this is not the complete solution, and I accept that this is probably the case, it may be a step in the right direction. It would, at least, move some responsibility on to the animal’s new owners. Ignorance would no longer be an excuse for maltreating the animal.