When I was 18 and living on my own I saw a freshwater moray eel at the pet store. I immediately had my boyfriend help me set up a freshwater tank so that I could bring this strange pet home and call my own.
The eel at the time was about 12 inches long, about as thick as my pointer finger and a dark caramel color. He was the most unusual freshwater fish anyone had ever seen and I began to collect other unusual fish for my tank. I had a needle nose gar that ate mini guppies. I had painted glass fish in a variety of fluorescent colors. I had two blue fish that would meet lip to lip and push each other back and forth across the tank- it was if they were fighting with kisses.
The eel looked pretty creepy-always opening and closing his mouth just like the big eels you see at aquariums and on TV shows about the ocean. He would burrow into the colored gravel at the floor of the tank and kind of bob in and out of the decorative lava rocks. His funny eel characteristics made him seem to have much more of personality than most fish that just swim around in tanks.
He began to have other strange habits, like always swimming up to the top of the tank and climbing into the out of tank filter and hiding. I would search the tank and when I noticed he was missing I would have to open the outside filter and dump him back in to the tank. I never wanted to touch him because he was a creepy water snake with a strange tooth filled mouth. He was fun to look at, but I didn't want to touch him.
Another funny thing he did was attempt suicide. Often I would come home from work and find him on the ground, a much darker brown than he was in the water. From being out of the water so long, he would be shriveled up and wrinkled. The first time this happened, I was certain that he was dead, but put him back in the water just in case. He quickly turned the lighter color and wiggle through the water and was as good as new.
These suicide attempts became a regular course of events. When my boyfriend moved in with me I explained to him the coming home ritual. First thing when we came home we had to check to see if the eel was still in the tank. If the eel was gone, we had to check the filter and if he wasn’t there we had to search the floor. I told him no matter what the eel looked like, no matter how dead he seemed we had to put him back in the water and he would come back to life. Sometimes he would be out of the tank for hours before we put him in the water, but each time he could come back to life. Re-animated eel.
The suicidal eel carried on like this for years. I had to move into my Mom’s condo for a few months, and I brought my fish tank with me. My Mom, who didn’t like snakes wasn’t very keen on me moving a water snake into her house. I assured her that he didn’t bite. He never did bite me, but he did have those creepy teeth. I explained to her it’s suicidal ways, and asked he to please follow the eel suicide watch protocol and put him back into the tank if she found him. She said there was no way she could pick him up and put him in the water. I suggested she use rubber dish gloves, even tongs or salad forks if she had to.
For the few months I lived with my Mom she never had to pick up the eel. I only had to grab him off the floor a few times myself and was always happy that my Mom’s small dog didn’t eat him while he was on the floor.
I was leaving on a trip for a week, and assured my Mom that the eel would be on his best behavior. I left knowing the eel may be successful in his suicide attempt with me gone and my mom in charge of re-animating him. I left hoping for the best.
When I returned, the eel wasn’t in the tank. He wasn’t in the filter and he wasn’t on the floor. When my Mom came home from work I asked what happened and she told me he had made his final jump to the death. She found him on the floor the day after I left. He was dark brown and wrinkled and she decided it was pointless to put him back in the tank. She figured he was past the point of re-animation.
Not knowing if I wanted to bury him or flush him or trash him, my Mom grabbed him with a paper towel wrapped him up and put him in a zip lock bag and then put him in the freezer. He was in the freezer for several days before I got home from my trip.
I had this eel for many years and we had been through a lot together. He had taught me something about perseverance and having a strong will to live. I decided I wanted to stretch him out and seal him on a plaque. As I unzipped the bag and unrolled the paper towel, the thought occurred to me that maybe he still wanted to live. I opened the fish tank lid and let his frozen wrinkled brown paper towel lint covered body fall into the water.
He sunk to the bottom and I was sad knowing that he had his last fling. I always joked that he was trying to evolve and live on land and that one day he may just sprout legs and walk away. I was sad that I didn’t get to witness his evolution. I was sad that my Mom didn’t put him in the water when she first found him.
Just when I was about to pull him out of the tank, he moved very slowly. His next movement was a bit faster and then in a rapid jerking motion he burrowed his body completely into the gravel floor covering. A few more wiggles and he emerged from the gravel without any lint on him, and back to his beautiful dark caramel color. He slid through the water like he had never been frozen for days. He had survived another attempt.
What if we could push ourselves out of our comfort zone like the eel? What if we tried to just leave our normal world and risk all to try a different way? Perhaps the eel is a good example of striving to "live outside of the box" and surviving against all odds? Imagine if we had the ability to survive for hours or days completely out of our natural element? Most days I feel like I can’t survive a chill for more than 10 minutes without my sweater.
Or maybe he is a bad example- maybe he really was a quitter and suicidal? Maybe I prolonged his life years longer than he wanted? Imagine if every time we felt like jumping ship, someone came along and picked us up? Would we be grateful? Would we feel inspired to make something better of our life? Would we just come to expect it and throw ourselves out of the water at every chance, knowing the safety net is there?
Who knows what the lesson of the eel is. Perhaps it’s different for each of us. There probably isn't a lesson here at all. I just know that he was a survivor and a super cool and interesting pet. I have never seen another one in a pet store, or I would set up a tank just to have another one.
The eel lived for several more years. I had a new roommate who had pets of his own; cats. The eel jumped out several times and became a live plaything for the cats. I would come home and find him scraped and scarred in another room, carry him to the tank and re-animate him.
Eventually the cats won. The eel just couldn’t beat them up and eventually they did too much damage. One day I put him in the water and he just didn’t revive. He was done. I wanted to keep him around as a conversation piece. I wanted him around to bring up his story and tell people about his amazing eel life.
I tried attaching his body to a plaque and coated him with resin, but I didn’t know what I was doing so he shriveled up to just a twig compared to what he once was. I said goodbye and put him in the trash.