I Sought Andy Warhol
She disappeared sometime after dinner on Tuesday night. By Sunday, I knew she was dead.
She had always been flighty and prone to dark moods. In her youth, she’d go missing for days at a time, just long enough for me to fear the worst, and then inevitably she’d stumble out from behind some rock just in time for dinner. One cold winter morning, she tried to do herself in. I found her just in time – twitching on her side, covered in dust and hair, full of regret.
She was a crystal red shrimp, one variation of Caridina cantonensis , tiny inhabitants of freshwater streams in southern China bred to display red and white stripes and other color combinations found in candy. She had a distinct white stripe that looked like a label slapped across her red back, so I named her Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans Painting, or Andy Warhol for short.
Nothing seemed amiss that last night when Andy Warhol glided over toward my tweezers, fanning the clutch of 30 tiny orange eggs under her tail. She grasped a bloodworm with her two tiny front claws and chewed it like a footlong without a bun.
After almost a week into her disappearance, I started turning over leaf and rock in my tank. It is just two gallons, in hobbyist lingo a nanoaquarium, but planted heavily with clumps of Anubias , spindly bunches of Rotala , sprays of Cryptocoryne , and a variety of mosses and grasses so that inside is a veritable corn maze. When multiple searches turned up no body, I was certain that somewhere in my apartment, a mother and her babies lay dead.
To those who have only kept furry or feathered pets, or never had a pet at all, this probably sounds melodramatic. A shrimp doesn’t drool on your leg like a pup, mimic the blender like an African Grey, or get stuck in paper towel rolls like those kitties on YouTube. But to me, pets with pincers are just as entertaining as any other non-human companion.
Those among us who have delved into the aquarium hobby, however, have at some point confronted a nasty truth: A tank is a glass prison surrounded by a moat of deadly air, and as the warden, you are responsible for all the suffering that goes on within its walls. It’s this realization that drives kids to put on elaborate ceremonies at the toilet when something goes wrong, and why many adult aquarists give up on naming their fish.
I figured it was my responsibility to figure out what happened to my charge. I decided to consult some experts to see if they could help solve my missing shrimp mystery.
My first stop is the San Francisco Aquarium Society, the longest running organization dedicated to the aquarium hobby in the United States, which meets at Fort Mason. When I arrived, people were milling about with the casual air of a wine tasting, but instead of vintages and mouth feel, they were discussing leaf size and fin position.
I found Eryn Rosenbaum, textbook editor by day and president of the California Betta Society all other hours, and told her what I thought had happened to Andy Warhol given her history of depression. Eryn is outgoing and cool like a curator of a hip gallery – maybe not the sort of person you expect to be certified to judge how beautifully a fish’s body tapers. Since shrimp are among the most sensitive of the freshwater fauna, her first instinct was to ask about the water.
Of the many things that can go wrong with a tank, the most likely is water chemistry. A tank ready for livestock is one that is fully cycled – that is, one that has been set up for at least four weeks, so that a thriving bacteria colony is ready to break down otherwise toxic poop and rotting stuff. For crystal red shrimp, the water should be slightly acidic with a touch of calcium and magnesium. My water had been in the right ranges leading up to the disappearance, so we decided that probably wasn’t it.
We turned our attention to George Lo, who with his brother Steven runs Aqua Forest Aquarium, a shop that specializes in perfectly coiffed, planted tanks. Over the next two hours, George demonstrated to a silent, rapt room how to lay out an aquarium following the aesthetic principles of iwagumi , the Japanese term for making a few sticks and rocks look like Monterey cypress growing on the Pacific coastline.
After the demonstration, I told Steven what had happened to Andy Warhol. Like his brother, Steven speaks in short sentences and avoids small talk, but he was immediately animated when the discussion turned to things that live in freshwater. He asked about the temperature of the water, which for shrimp, should be like ideal San Francisco weather, rarely below 70 but never more than 75 degrees. My apartment had been rather warm lately. “That might have been the reason but it might not,” Steven said in the puzzling, que sera sera manner of a monk. “Sometimes we just find shrimp on the floor.”
A few days later, I went to see Kevin Liang, a respected breeder in the Bay Area with a preternatural skill for making shrimp multiply at exponential rates. He also is only 18, a fact that surprises his customers when they arrive to see tanks of rare shrimp in his parents’ garage in the Excelsior. What started as just a a handful of perfect specimens imported from Asia a few years ago expanded into extensive crossbreeding efforts with show breeders in New York and Florida, and now his project is to breed a black shrimp with white eyes, something he guesses may take five years.
Given his experience, it was comforting when he pointed to a tank of bright blue and black tiger shrimp flitting around mats of java moss and admitted that once an entire tank of them crashed without any apparent cause. When I lay down the facts about Andy Warhol, though, he immediately deduced that she had been murdered.
He fingered the pair of Scarlet badis, miniscule fish with cartoon eyes that rotate in their sockets, who had lived in seeming harmony with her for six months. He didn’t buy it. “They are aggressive fish that could have just run her out of the tank or tore her apart,” he said ominously.
I shuddered to think what other torture my tiny but brutal fish had enacted on others while I slept. Perhaps sensing my concern, Kevin said, “Then again, some shrimp are just dumber than others.”
When I proposed to Justin Hau at Ocean Aquarium that my missing shrimp had died because she had probably just been too hot and stupid, he didn’t seem to agree with my coping method of assigning blame. Justin is known by freshwater aquarists around the world for his low-key techniques, like rigging plastic Giants cups into slow-drip systems, which somehow make for the happiest, healthiest fish money can buy.
He was standing by a massive tank of orange and blue striped discus serenely weaving among plants the size of small bushes, and when he placed his hand softly on the glass they all moved toward it as if drawn by a magnet. Then he threw a handful of writhing pink worms into the tank, which the discus ripped apart like sharks.
“Shrimp, sometimes they just crawl out. It’s their nature. They see a leaf and crawl. It was an accident,” he said.
I thought about my shrimp and her little eggs, perhaps lying behind the DVD collection, dried up like those little shrimp you eat in Chinese restaurants. As the warden of my tank, I admit I got some comfort in believing she might have freely chosen her path; she might have jumped out of anyone else’s tank, or (assuming she could survive out in nature looking like a candy cane) even out of her own mountain stream.
Justin’s wife Ady leaned in and said, “Sometimes, Justin will pick up the fish that jump out on the floor and then blow in their mouths.” She cupped her hands in front of her pursed her lips and puffed softly as if to set a butterfly free.
“I did that in front of a lady once, but she didn’t like to see that,” Justin said. He started mixing water to add to a tank. “It’s sad when a fish or shrimp dies. Each animal is a life, and you have to respect it, but you know, sometimes it’s just too late.” Then he paused and said, “Maybe you should just cover your aquarium.”
I went home and scoured the floor one last time for Andy Warhol. Then I covered my tank with a piece of plastic wrap and finally vacuumed.
Establishing a new aquarium, especially as a beginner, requires significant time and care. Freshwater shrimp are among the most fickle. Try starting with a hardy species of fish so you don’t have to resort to CPR. Shops such as Aqua Forest Aquarium on Fillmore, Fairy Lake Discus Palace in the Outer Richmond, Lucky Ocean Aquarium in the Inner Richmond, and Ocean Aquarium near the Civic Center, offer thoughtful guidance and carry a variety of healthy livestock including shrimp, for mostly $3 to $20. You can also join forums like the San Francisco Bay Area Aquatic Plant Society for tips and contacts about local sellers, including Kevin Liang at theshrimpjournal.com .