Category Archives: animal geekery

A Brand New Way to Help Support Your Local Pike

First of all, I encourage you to read this post here about why you want to support your local Pike in the first place!

Now then. I love writing novels for you guys, but unfortunately they take a long time to do. While I can knock out a first draft in a month or two, the editing progress can take many more months after that. As a way to provide new books to everyone quicker, I’ve been thinking about brancing out into things such as short stories.

As a proof of concept and test-run, I actually went an entirely different route– that of non-fiction– and cobbled together some prior blog posts I’d written about fishkeeping and compiled them into a handy little guide for anyone interested. That guide is now available here, and explains in simple language how to set up a new tank so that your fish don’t die and also how to read test strips. I realize it’s probably a bit of a niche guide but if you are interested, it’s there, and any sales of it go directly to the Pike & Mister Adequate Fund of course!

Until next time!

<3, Pike

Guys, I have a secret: I jinx racehorses.

List of horses that I have jinxed by getting all attached and watching their races:

Cigar (and his win streak)
Silver Charm
Real Quiet
War Emblem
Funny Cide
Smarty Jones

…after Smarty I fell out of racing for a while because my heart was shattered into billions of tiny pieces because I was tired of the racing gods toying with me.

Then along comes Zenyatta. Holy crap, 19 for 19? Undefeated? Always comes from behind to win in the last second? SIGN ME UP.

…and of course, in the biggest race of her life, going for 20 out of 20…

…she runs harder than she has ever run, she comes from dead last and some 20 lengths off the lead, she weaves her way through terrible heavy traffic, she disproves everyone who said she couldn’t run on dirt…

…and she loses by a head.*


Though on the plus side, I guess we can use me as a reliable indicator for who to bet on to place. Eh?

* (Click here to view my response.)

Bugs. (Don’t click if you don’t like them.)

When you work in a pet store you soon learn which questions you will be asked more often than others. Aside from the standard fare like “Do the GloFish really glow in the dark” (No), “Can I feed rabbit food to my guinea pig” (No), and “Can I put a goldfish in a bowl/why not/my hairdresser’s sister’s best friend did it for years/pleeeeeeeeease” (…), I am also very frequently asked how I can stand to be around crickets every day. People usually ask this when I’m elbow deep in the cricket bin and I have said insects crawling up my arms.

Now most normal people would probably wonder why I’m able to do this, but seeing as I do this several times a day, several hours a week, I’m very used to it by now and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. As such, the aforementioned question still sort of catches me off guard. I scoop crickets, I count crickets, I feed and water crickets, and I catch them with my bare hands all the time. It’s just a cricket, after all. They’re actually kind of cute.

I have a bizarre relationship with bugs. Some of them I don’t mind. Some of them creep me out but they don’t bother me so long as they keep a safe distance from me– spiders fall into this category. I’m not terrified by them but I’d rather they just stay somewhere where I cannot see them.

But there are two insects that I 100% cannot stand no matter what.

Exhibit A: Moths

…you know what, I went to Google Image search to find a picture to put here and I closed the tab in about two seconds because CREEPY FLAPPY FUZZY AUGH

The really weird thing is that when people find out how terrified I am of moths, they usually proceed to ask if I hate Mothra/the moths in WoW/Venomoth from Pokemon/etc. The answer is… not really. They actually sort of gain this weird sort of bumbling cuteness when you blow them up to a big enough size. But the little guys horrify me beyond belief. I think it’s the whole random twitchy movements and those ugly flappy wings AAAHHH

And yes, butterflies creep me out a little too.

But yeah. Moving on. *composes self*

Exhibit B: Daddy Long Legs

Yeah, screw you Google Image Search. I’m not even gonna try this one.




They live in the receiving room at work…


All other insects, I can live with. Spiders I can handle so long as they’re far away. Superworms are gross but not really scary. Giant evil grasshoppers… well so long as they’re in the yard and not in the house and I don’t have to go outside, then okay.

…but I don’t do moths or Daddy Long Legs. Ever.

…OMG I just saw a picture of like 50 Daddy Long Legs all in one place. I HATE YOU GOOGLE OMG WHY DID I WRITE THIS POST *runs away*

The hardest part about working at a pet store is that I want everything.

Even things I used to have no interest in.

For example: conures.

Conures are messy, extremely loud, and they engage in self-destructive behaviors if you don’t give them enough attention. (Conures: the original emo kids.)

So why would anyone want to own one?

…maybe because they’re the most intelligent animal I’ve ever had the pleasure of being around?

I’m not kidding. These things are smart. Never, ever underestimate the intelligence of a conure. I don’t treat them like I treat most birds; I treat them like I’d treat a small child. And you know what? They respond to it.

Recently I was cleaning cages and I had to get a conure from one cage to the next. So I opened up both cage doors, and told him to go over to the other cage. He stepped up to the edge of his cage and looked at me, as if to ask if it that was really what I wanted him to do. I assured him that it was, so he walked calmly over to the other cage and stepped inside.

I dare you to find another domestic animal that will do this when it has not been trained and/or there is no food involved. Go on; I’ll wait.

This is my favorite kind– the Green Cheek Conure:

They tend to be (a little) quieter than most kinds, and they’re also little clowns. They warm up to you nice and quick and soon they’ll run up to you and throw themselves to the ground and roll over and do all sorts of silly things because they want to play with you.

We have one at work whom I have nicknamed “Zero”– not sure why, the name just seemed to fit. Zero is a supersmart goofball who will jam his head between the cage bars and demand head-scratches if you approach him. He loves head-scratches. He also loves keys, belly rubs, and playing tug-of-war. He was sold recently, and I was depressed for like a week because he was my buddy and I’d always sneak away and play with him. Then, yesterday, lo and behold, he’d been RETURNED! …for some unfathomable reason. I’m happy that my buddy is back but with it is the urge to smuggle him under my trenchcoat and take him home with me. Bad, bad Pike! Bad! *thwaps self on the head with a rolled up newspaper*

I know, I want a loud and messy bird. Am I insane, or what?

I also want a Jackson’s Chameleon, because they are super sweet:

How can you not love that face?

And now I want a Russian Dwarf Hamster. This is a species that is normally Evil Without Fail, but once a year or so you find one that actually is halfway-friendly and we have one of those in stock right now and I want it so bad.

You know you want one too.

And don’t get me started on the kittens that the Humane Society brings in to display. Just… just… I… I’m going to go somewhere far away where I don’t have to look at all the cute fuzzy/feathery/scaly things.

But at least I’ll always have my faithful (if slightly psychotic) guinea pig, Captain Nemo:

Fishy Business: How To Decipher an Aquarium Test Strip

Water Testing is one of the most important parts of keeping an aquarium. One thing that I think it is important to know, though, is that water testing goes just beyond deciding if a certain value is “good” or “bad”. A water test can tell a good aquarist a variety of things about your tank– for example, how old it is, how frequently you perform water changes, and whether or not your tank is overstocked. In this post, I’m gonna show you some of the tricks of the trade! *flexes fingers*

To Start – Gather Your Materials
: Test strips frequently (though certainly not always) come on two different strips: one for ammonia, and one for everything else. The reason is because the ammonia strip has to be swirled in the water for ten seconds and the other one just needs a quick dip. I frequently run across people who think they’re saving money by only buying the 5-in-1 test strip and not bothering with the ammonia. Bad idea. Unless you both a.) have had your tank for a while and b.) know what you’re doing, you need the ammonia test strip. Having both sets is the only way to get a really clear indication of the health of your tank.

Test!: Scoop enough water out of your tank to dip the test strip in. Ideally this water isn’t particularly contaminated (i.e., the fish were just fed, or a dead fish has been sitting in it for more than a few minutes). Time is of the essence because a lot of the time, these tests will begin to skew if you let them sit for a more than a minute or two. The ammonia test, in particular, is meant to be read immediately. My normal strategy here is to dip the 5-in-1 test and then set it aside, then swirl the ammonia test and read it immediately, and then read the 5-in-1 test.

Ammonia: An ammonia buildup is the first step of the nitrogen cycle that happens in every fish tank, and is very toxic to fish. It means that there isn’t enough good bacteria in the tank yet to convert the ammonia to less toxic forms. High ammonia and low nitrites/nitrates is a dead giveaway that either the tank is new, or the fishkeeper just did a massive 100% water change (which I don’t recommend doing, by the way). If you have high ammonia, don’t panic, it happens to pretty much everybody. The best way to get rid of it is through a water change. I know there are tons of chemicals on the market that say they will get rid of ammonia. That’s keyword for “This product will bind ammonia to a nontoxic form which is a bandaid fix because you’ll wind up with high nitrates later.” That’s why I recommend water changes.

If you have high ammonia, chances are it’s because you’re still cycling your tank. I tell everybody to do about a 25% water change every other day for the next few weeks. There’s a good chance this will get you through this phase just fine.

Overstocking your tank and overfeeding will also cause ammonia issues (doing both in a new tank is a deadly combination and practically guarantees fish health issues– this is why so many newbies have problems).

If you’ve had your tank for years and years and you have chronic ammonia issues and we’ve ruled out all other causes, then there is a chance that there is chloramine in your city’s water, which is a big giant pain and typically means you should fill your tank with distilled water. Hopefully you don’t have to deal with that, though.

Nitrite: High nitrites are the second step in the aquarium tank cycling process. Usually someone with high nitrites is also testing out to have either high ammonia or high nitrates, signifying how far along you are in cycling. (If all three are high then you have an issue.) It is still very toxic to fish. It can be remedied the same way ammonia can: water changes. You can also add a bit of aquarium salt to the water, which helps the fish’s gills to block nitrite absorption.

The nitrite phase usually does not last as long as the ammonia phase does and is a good indicator that the water you are testing has been established for a few weeks.

Nitrate: Nitrate is the final step of the aquarium nitrogen cycle. If you are testing out at little to no ammonia/nitrites but you have a decent buildup of nitrate, then congratulations, your tank is cycled! Water testing out this way tells me that the tank has been established for at least a month.

Most freshwater fish are relatively tolerant of nitrate but in my experience, while they do okay with some nitrate in the tank, they don’t thrive unless it’s as low as you can make it, which is another reason why I advocate continuing your frequent water changes even past the cycling process. (Also note that certain types of “sensitive fish” cannot tolerate as much nitrate as hardier ones. If your tank is established but you are still having fish issues, nitrate is the first place to look.)

Nitrate is removed from your tank via (say it with me now) water changes. This is why it is recommended that you perform a water change at least once a week, or if you’re Pike, multiple times a week. You really cannot get out of doing water changes entirely. Having a massive filtration system, live plants, and an understocked tank can really reduce the amount of water changes you have to do, but you will always have to do them at least to some extent.

If you do frequent water changes and continue to have chronic Nitrate issues then it probably means your tank is overstocked, you’re feeding too much, or both. (See all the magical things test strips can tell you?)

Nitrate is also algae food. When people come in and talk to me about serious algae issues, I usually tell them to scrape it off and then start doing tons of water changes. People hate me for it, but I’m just telling it like it is.

Note: as an aquarium specialist I typically consider ammonia/nitrite/nitrate to be the “big three” and the cause of about 85% of the fish issues I see in the business. I’m telling you this because I see tons of people panicking about things like pH when they probably should be worrying about ammonia/nitrite/nitrate.

Moving on!

Hardness: This is one of those things that rarely causes issues and probably shouldn’t be messed with. Most freshwater fish in the hobby are adaptable to a wide range of water hardness. Really the only time you should be concerned with hardness is if you’re dealing with specific fish like discus (who like soft water) or African cichlids (who like harder water) or if you are moving fish from a really-soft environment to a really-hard environment or viceversa.

Chlorine: Good news and bad news for this one. The bad news is that Chlorine is extremely toxic and will kill fish in minutes. The good news is that there’s so much hype about adding water conditioners and the like that you will probably never have a chlorine issue. In two and a half years of testing water, I’ve never seen a chlorine issue. (Actually I lied, I saw someone’s chlorine off the charts once, but every single other thing on the test strip was also off the charts. That person’s water was, uh, special.)

Alkalinity: This is another thing that you probably never have to mess with. Most fish are tolerant of the entire alkalinity spectrum and unless you’re doing something really specific, like breeding, don’t mess with it.

pH: pH is one of those buzzwords that everyone remembers from high school chemistry and because of this, everyone overreacts when they hear it and go to great lengths to eradicate any “pH issues” in their aquarium. And therein lies the problem. So, here’s the deal:

Unless you’re doing something difficult (like breeding, or trying to keep a notoriously finicky fish), don’t mess with the pH.

Most tropical fish are very tolerant of pH, so long as it’s stable. They don’t care if it’s high, they don’t care if it’s low, they don’t care if it’s exactly 7.0, but they do care if it goes back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. This is why attempting to “fix” pH issues usually causes more problems than the pH itself does.

If your pH is extreme (i.e. lower than 4 or higher than 10), then by all means, fix your pH. But I’ve never ever seen any water tests that extreme. Most of the time it’s between 6 and 8, which is fine. Just sayin’.

And there you have it– how to decipher the mysterious aquarium test strips! *bows*

And Down The Stretch They Come

I was going to start out this post with something about how most girls go through the infamous “Horse Phase”, but then I realized that I’d just end up with dozens of “but I didn’t!” comments, so instead I’ll begin this post thus:

Yeah, I went through the Horse Phase. Mine was a little different from the other Horse-crazed girls I knew at school, though. While most of them dreamed of ribbons in the manes of Shetland ponies or wild mustangs or that sort of thing, I dreamed of

the thundering

hooves of

thoroughbred racehorses.

This obsession can be entirely blamed on this book, which my dad bought me for some unknown reason (since I had no real interest in horses at the time):

I read it when I was, oh, 12 or 13 years old, and was instantly intrigued by this world previously unknown to me: a world of racehorses– those brave, elegant, hotblooded creatures– and the people who loved them. I went on to read a bunch of the books in the series and then I started reading other books about racehorses and before long I was watching horse races on TV. I’ll never forget my first Kentucky Derby: an underdog horse named Grindstone who triumphed over a bunch of strong contenders. And that was it: I was hooked. I wrote a short story about that race for school, and from that point on I was a horse racing nut.

I drew thoroughbreds, I wrote about thoroughbreds, I read about thoroughbreds, I dreamed of owning a horse farm someday. Then I wanted to become a jockey, which I figured I could get away with because I’m short and scrawny, but reality eventually set in when I remembered that I have zero athletic ability and that I’m terrified of anything past cantering on an actual horse. Still, I wanted to get in on the action somehow, and I daydreamed up stories about my future horses and figured out what color silks my future horse farm would have (white bars on a teal body, and white sleeves).

My strongest desire was to see a horse win the Triple Crown: a perfect trifecta of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes, a feat which has only been accomplished eleven times in over a hundred years, and not since Affirmed in 1978.

So of course the Racing Gods thought it would be most amusing to toy with my heart, and over the course of my next several years of keen race-watching I got to watch heart-wrenching near-misses by Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998, Charismatic in 1999, War Emblem in 2002, Funny Cide in 2003, and the most soul-crushing upset of all: Smarty Jones in 2004. I’d been a fan of Smarty since watching him just romp the field in the Arkansas Derby. “That horse,” I said, “Is going to win the Kentucky Derby.” He did. Then he won the Preakness. And then… then he lost the Belmont to a horse named Birdstone, son of Grindstone, who I’d fallen in love with years before. Oh irony.

After that my interest started to wane a bit. It was a combination of usually being scheduled to work on Saturdays (when most “big” races are run) and simply sort of moving on from the obsession. But while I may not be quite as obsessed as I used to be, I still love the Sport of Kings. I can’t think of anything quite as thrilling as the two minutes that are the Kentucky Derby (this weekend, by the way!) and I can’t think of anything quite as nail-biting as the post parade for the Belmont when a Triple Crown contender is running. I love the spirit of thoroughbreds, I love the stories behind them and their people (insert obligatory “I liked ‘Seabiscuit’, bite me” comment here), and who knows, maybe one of these days I’ll actually get to see a Triple Crown Winner.*

Until then, I present the greatest race of all time (which I can’t watch without tearing up, by the way. I blame the Rudy music):

* In actuality the fact that horses these days are bred for speed more than distance has me questioning the idea of preserving the lengths of the original Triple Crown races, even for nostalgia’s sake. I envision a “modern day” Triple Crown as having a 1 1/8 mile Kentucky Derby, a 1 1/16 mile Preakness, and a 1 1/4 mile Belmont. But on the other hand, who am I to mess with the Derby? <3

How To Cycle A Fish Tank

…because I told you there would be fish rambles. I mentioned there would be fish rambles, didn’t I?

I know a LOT about fishkeeping. I have to: fish are my job. As such, a lot of people ask me fishkeeping questions, and because I was feeling, uh… fishy, I am here to provide a piscatorial post.

In specific, this is how to Start a Tropical Fish tank with Minimal Issues.

…well, okay. For the absolute minimum amount of issues, you should do all of this with a pinch of fish food in the water instead of live fish. But I know a lot of people are impatient, myself included, and you CAN do this with fish already in your tank.

See, this is a very common problem. People come in to my store to start a fish tank. They assume, 9 times out of 10, that keeping a fish tank involves sticking fish in a tank and leaving them there. Maybe poking the water once every couple of months. These are the people that are constantly having problems with it and usually swear off fishkeeping forever. But now, I will tell you the Secret to avoiding these issues all together! =D



Fish eat and thus, fish poop. Fact o’ life, unfortunately. Fish poop turns into ammonia, which is very toxic to fish. Bacteria in your gravel will turn the ammonia into nitrite, which is still very toxic to fish, and eventually to nitrate, which is… toxic in high doses, but most freshwater fish can tolerate it in lower doses.

In a brand new fish tank, this “good bacteria” does not exist yet. Thus, while you are cycling a tank, it is up to YOU to make sure that the bad chemicals do not reach toxic levels.

No! Bad! Gaaah! *brain explodes*


1.) MAKE SURE YOUR TANK IS NOT OVERSTOCKED. Marketing will show you pictures of five guppies in a three gallon mini-tank. Unfortunately, aquarium marketing, uh… is usually not accurate. “The Rule” is roughly one gallon for each inch worth of full grown fish. This rule is not set in stone. If you are willing to do a lot of work, you can bend it. And bigger fish (and goldfish) need more gallons per inch. But if you’re starting out with a fairly small tank, it’s a pretty good rule to follow.

2.) FOR BEST RESULTS PICK FAIRLY DURABLE FISH TO START OUT WITH. Zebra Danios and White Cloud Minnows are good choices. Platies are also pretty good. Do not use Mollies. They are notoriously sensitive to ammonia and thus are not a good cycling choice. Stuff like Neon Tetras and Barbs are difficult to use, but not impossible.

Got your tank set up? Got your fish? Good!

3.) WATER CHANGES. I know people hate doing these. Unfortunately it is basically the only way to get a good cycle going unless you wanna mess with chemicals and things. Do about a 25% water change every other day. This should keep the ammonia down to a manageable level. If you have a test kit, use it! Otherwise lots of pet places will do a water test for you for free.

The Ammonia Phase usually lasts 2-3 weeks, though it may vary depending on a lot of factors.

Once you get through the Ammonia Phase you will hit the Nitrite Phase. This means the ammonia on your test strip will lower a bit, and your nitrite pad will turn bright pink. The Nitrite Phase, in my experience, only lasts a few days. Continue doing the every-other-day water changes.

Not long after this you will do a water test and you will notice that your ammonia and nitrite counts are nice and low, but your nitrate is starting to rise. You may also start to notice algae growth around this time.


Your tank is cycled and you have just bypassed the issue that discourages probably 80% of first-timers from continuing in the fishkeeping hobby. Wasn’t that easy?

Now you can get more fish (if your tank has room for them). Be sure not to add more than a few fish at a time, as to not overload your little biological system.

4.) NOW WHAT? I am going to get on the soap box here and tell you something that you probably don’t want to hear. But I’m going to tell you anyway because I’m a firm believer in this. Ready?

Keep doing those crazy frequent water changes.

See, conventional wisdom says that once you hit the completely cycled Nitrate Phase, you can scale back your water changes to once a week or once every couple of weeks. Yes, you can probably do this and not suffer too many ill effects.

However, I recently saw a bunch of math done by fish geeks, complete with all sorts of charts and experiments, showing that conventional wisdom in this case pales in comparison to the beautiful fishkeeping results you’ll get with frequent water changes. See, even if Nitrate is the least toxic of the chemicals we’ve discussed here, it’s still, in the end, toxic. And it is Algae Food. Algae loves it some Nitrate.

I change 25% of the water in my fish tank every other day. My fish are brighter in color than any other fish I have ever seen. They are happier and more active than any other fish I have ever seen. I know you’ll accuse me of anthropomorphism here, but I swear to the Fish Gods that they get even happier for a few minutes after a water change. They are healthy– I have had these fish for months (or years in the case of one of them) and they have never been sick. And guess what: no algae. You heard me. No algae. Oh, I’ll get a couple flecks of it every few weeks. Takes five seconds to scrub it off. Far cry from the dozens of people who come into my store every week begging for an easy solution to their algae woes.

I have mentioned, before, that I can glance at a test strip and tell you how old someone’s tank is and make a good guess on how many fish they’ve got in there. Recently I tested my tank water. And let me tell you, if it had been someone else’s tank water, I’d have smiled politely and asked why they were asking me to test water that clearly had no fish in it. That’s how clean my water is, and that’s why my fish are so happy, healthy, and bright.

Can you get away with fewer water changes? Yes. Especially if your tank is sparsely stocked. But in fishkeeping, as with many hobbies, you get out of it what you put into it. Spending five minutes every other day doing a water change is worth it, to me.

*gets off soap box*

…did I just rant about fish? Sheesh. I am beyond hope.

Have a Puffer Fish:

Fish Of My Dreams

(Toldya there’d be fish rambles).

So thanks to my job as a Real-Life Beastmaster… or pet store employee… I’ve become a bit of a tropical fish expert and fiend by necessity. Unfortunately, being a Fish Expert is not exactly very useful in most real-life situations, unless you count “being able to determine how old someone’s tank is and what condition it’s in by glancing at the water test kit dipstrip” as a cool party trick, and most people don’t.

So most of my fish knowledge outside of work gets funneled into daydreaming about future fish tanks that I want. There are like ten or twenty of them, at least. Here’s a few:

The Gourami Tank
Two gold gouramis and two opaline gouramis. Probably in a 29-gallon or so. Gouramis are anabantoids, thus related to bettas and as such they tend not to hang out together very much so they’d definitely want space. This would mostly be a “tank for looks” more than anything, cause I think gold and opalines look beautiful together:

The African Cichlid Tank
I know people love their South Americans: oscars and angelfish and discus (and I do agree that Jack Dempseys are a classic), but I tend to favor the African Cichlids myself. I’m not going to sit here and make vain attempts to point out species, because the Africans are notorious for basically turning Lake Malawi and Lake Victoria into genetic playgrounds where 2000 cichlid species have evolved over a mere ten thousand years or something. All I’m gonna say is: look at the colors on these things:

Do want!

I’d put those four into like… a 55 gallon tank or something. With lots of plants.

Cherry Barb Wonderland
Cherry Barbs (Puntius titteya) are my babies. I love them so much. I have a few right now in a small tank, and I spoil them as best as one can spoil fish– large frequent water changes, bloodworm treats, the works. They show their gratitude (or hunger, I suppose) by swimming up to the glass and getting all excited anytime I pass by. I want a giant school of them.

I might combine the Cherry Barb Wonderland tank with…

Otocinclus and Cory Cat Wonderland

Unlike some folks who see utility fish as simply being, well, utility fish, I love them for what they are. I think they’re absolutely adorable. Both otos and cory cats are happier in big groups, so I’d get giant groups of each. :3

The Rainbow Fish Tank
Rainbows are some of the most underrated fish ever, and I think it’s because they start out all drab and boring when they’re young and don’t get pretty until later.

Well, I’m willing to wait:

…well, those are just a few of my dream tanks. I’m always coming up with new ones, so I may very well be doomed to be the Crazy Fish Lady someday.

Pike’s Fish Geekery hits you for 78234 (critical). You die.