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Tanks for the memories

Fish fanciers feel their finned companions are part of the family

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Jason and Monica Lesage with some of their fish tanks.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Jason and Monica Lesage with some of their fish tanks. Photo Store

For Jason and Monica Lesage, fish are a family affair

Ever since the Winnipeg couple tied the knot on Aug. 26, 2006, their shared passion for raising legions of tropical fish has brought them even closer.

"It's something we get to do every day together," Monica, 29, chirps with obvious delight. "We both had fish tanks when we met."

For these local fish fanatics, however, it's become much more than a hobby.

They view their ever-growing family of fish just like any other pets, although they have fins instead of fur.

"They're members of my family and I take care of them," Monica says. "The only difference is I can't pick them up and hug them. It's all visual."

Jason, 32, an IT professional with the federal government, says while you can't take a fish for a walk or on a family vacation, they are pets just the same.

"We treat them just like any other pet," he declares. "Some will recognize you as their owner, or the person that feeds them. When Monica comes into the room, they will all come up to the tank and dance, or flash their fins and beg for food.

"When I come in, a lot of times they'll dart for cover and hide. Sometimes it sets me back, but they see her far more often than they see me."

In their eight years of marriage, the Lesages have built up a collection of 19 aquariums in their Elmwood home, ranging from a 20-litre tank to a 570-litre behemoth that's about 1.5 metres long and 60 centimetres deep.

Says Monica with a chuckle: "I could get in there if I wanted to. It's big. But I don't want to because some of the fish would bite me. I've fed my fish by hand. They're not afraid of hands. When it rains, sometimes I pick worms off the sidewalks and feed (the worms) to them."

Jason concedes the couple suffers from a rare condition known as "MTS, or Multiple Tank Syndrome."

"Basically, the premise is you start with one tank, and once you get hooked, you're like an addict, stuffing tanks all over the house, anywhere they can fit or as many as your spouse will allow. Monica and I have managed our MTS by limiting our tanks to the basement laundry room."

How many exotic fish do the couple currently care for? That's not the easiest question to answer.

"It would probably be close to 150 right now, but a single female can have 20 to 30 babies at a time, so the population can ebb and flow drastically," Jason points out, noting their pets range in size from about two centimetres to 30-35 centimetres.

"Typically we have African cichlids, a tropical freshwater fish found all over the globe. They are the closest you can get, colour-wise, to a saltwater fish. There's red, blue, yellow -- all different colours and you can keep them in fresh water."

The Lesages are among an estimated 100 or so dedicated members of the Aquarium Society of Winnipeg, a non-profit organization of like-minded fish fanciers devoted to all things aquatic.

They both became hooked on aquatic pets as teenagers.

"When I was a kid, I watched more nature shows than cartoons," Monica recalls, laughing. "Having a tank is like having your own nature show in your house. It's your own little ecosystem right there."

In Jason's case, his love affair with fish became serious when his parents went away on a vacation.

"I had a summer job, so I went out and bought a 40-gallon aquarium and put it outside my bedroom downstairs," he recalls. "When my parents came home, they didn't say anything so I got to keep it.

"I decided I didn't want to just keep fish; I wanted to provide a suitable, healthy environment for them, something as close to natural as possible. That's the tank I had when I met my wife. She thought it was cool."

Along with their fish, the Lesages own a few more mainstream pets in the form of three cats.

"Our cats are more interested in the birds outside the door than the fish in the tanks," Jason insisted. "They don't want to get wet."

As with dogs and cats, the couple's attachment to some of their fish borders on the kind of powerful passion only a parent can truly understand. "There's one that Monica had from a little tiny guy and he grew up to be a tank-buster," Jason says with a sigh. "We kept moving him to larger and larger tanks until finally we couldn't keep him.

"We found him a new home. It was like Monica was losing a friend. We definitely missed him looking at us when we came in the room. We were feeding him full-sized shrimp... Monica named him Chomper."

Before you get the wrong idea, Monica insists they don't name all of their fish, partly because there are too many of them, but also to guard against becoming too emotionally attached.

Last year, they rescued a fish that had been surrendered to a pet store by an owner who couldn't care for it.

"He was beaten up and missing scales and skinny," she said. "He's doing great right now. He's the big boss of the tank. He's the king fish."

Keeping fish as pets can involve a fairly steep learning curve, along with some healthy expenditures. While it can get costly, there are discounts to be had on used equipment. "It's like buying a car," Jason explains, noting fish can run from a few dollars up to $100 for certain desirable species, while a standard 190-litre (50-gallon) tank could cost between $200 and $300.

Fish fanciers get their pets from stores and wholesalers, as well as auctions conducted by the aquarium society, but they also trade fish -- "Got em, got em, need em!" -- the way kids swap baseball cards.

If you're willing to do a bit of research ("It's a mix of chemistry and biology," Jason says) and don't mind a bit of teasing from the ill-informed, owning fish just might tickle your fancy, but Monica has a stern warning.

"The most important thing to remember is fish aren't disposable pets," she says sternly. "Don't just go and buy a fish because you think it's pretty. If you want to own fish, you have to treat it just like a dog or a cat. It's a life that's in your hands and you have to take care of it."

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 2, 2013 D5

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