Going in the Tank

Finding Nemo fans are racing to buy clown fish, but a happy ending may not be in the script.

Landing the lead role in a major animated film was a big break for the percula clown fish Nemo, star of Disney/Pixar's mega-hit, Finding Nemo. Co-star Dory, a captivating regal blue tang, has also seen her acting career reach new heights—or should we say new depths?—in spite of self-evident difficulties remembering her lines. But what about the countless other clown fish and blue tangs that don't possess the rare combination of talent, luck and intangibles necessary to make it in the big sea of the Big Screen? It turns out that Finding Nemo lovers have been darting out to aquariums, hoping to take home their own Nemo and Dory look-alikes. While fans' hearts might be in the right place, real-life tropical fish may not provide the expected warm and fuzzy experience. If history is any guide, adorable talking animals make great movie personalities but their mute relatives don't always make great pets.

Like most movie stars, percula clown fish and blue tangs are both shiny and beautiful, but neither “A”-list actors nor saltwater fish can be described as low maintenance. In fact, saltwater-types require a special habitat different than that of your average goldfish. For starters, a single percula clown needs a tank of 20 gallons or larger, one outfitted with a filtration system, lighting and either gravel or sand. If you want your clown fish to feel at home you'll also need to include an anemone or some other partially enclosed hiding place. The blue tang is larger and makes even more grandiose demands, preferring a tank of at least 75 gallons that includes several good hideouts. Not surprisingly, this can get expensive, especially if you're starting from scratch. According to Phil Scala of Beital's Exotic Aquariums in Pearl River, New York, “you've got to spend $100 or more for one fish—and that's without the fish.” A percula clown is a relatively inexpensive $15-25, but a blue tang could set you back sixty dollars. 

However, the real challenge for the uninitiated is keeping up with the needs of these colorful beauties. While both are easy-to-care-for compared to most saltwater species, it's still a major leap for those with no experience or those accustomed to dealing with freshwater fish. To begin with, high water quality is a must, while frequent partial water changes are also imperative. “You can go maybe a day without checking on them where with freshwater fish you can go a couple days. You've also got to make sure the salt content is right,” says Scala. “If the nitrates or ammonia goes up sky high you're going to lose the whole tank.”

Meanwhile, percula clowns and regal blue tang's need to be fed at least a couple times a day and both require a varied meat and vegetable diet. According to saltcorner.com—the nonprofit Web site “dedicated to marine aquarist enlightenment”—blue tangs have a surprisingly hearty appetite and prefer a menu that includes “fresh macroalgae, Spirulina, dried seaweed, and enriched vegetable flakes….” Blue tangs don't like to be uncomfortable, either, as stress makes them more susceptible to disease and skin parasites. Finally, look all you like, but touch at your own risk: Dory wannabe's have razor sharp spines on their sides near the base of the tail that can inflict a painful wound. 

While it's too early to tell how all these new tropical fish owners will fare, the track record of Hollywood-inspired pet ownership is nothing to brag about. In 1995, Universal Pictures released Babe, a comic fable about a good-natured pig who attempts to make himself useful by serving as a sheepdog. The movie features a pair of border collies, a breed that up until that time was almost exclusively owned by farmers. But the film's popularity brought border collies to the attention of the general public and demand for puppies skyrocketed among urban and suburban dwellers. Yet, new owners found that their pups weren't as compliant or sweet as the movie led them to expect, and soon began returning or abandoning them at alarming rates.

According to Dr. Nicholas B. Carter of Texas-based Border Collie Rescue, the dogs' role in the movie—i.e., living on a farm and herding sheep—represents the idyllic life for a border collie. “These dogs need a job and most people don't have sheep out in the backyard,” notes Carter. Most unsuspecting suburbanites couldn't keep up their dog's need for at least several hours of exercise each day, and fretted when their pet became highly destructive or noticeably neurotic. 

For owners with young children an additional problem often presented itself, as border collies' herding instinct is at odds with the youngsters' tendency to run wild. “Kids and border collies don't mix very well because border collies consider them sheep,” says Carter. As a result, when kids run, the dog attempts to round them up, using an ever-increasing amount of force that may escalate to nipping at heels or non-aggressive biting. “Fifty percent of the dogs that are turned in to us are 'too much to handle,’” advises Carter. “About twenty-five percent are turned in because they have bitten somebody—usually a kid.”

Eight years after its release, Babe is still having an impact on the border collie market, largely because the film helped bring the dogs to the attention of popular culture. “About a year after it came out we saw a massive influx into rescue—I'm going to say a 200-300 percent increase—and it really hasn't slowed down since then,” notes Carter. Soon after Babe, border collies began appearing regularly on late night television, in commercials and in other movies, in part because directors and producers discovered that their obsessive-compulsive, workaholic nature makes them easy to work with. 

Similarly, Disney's live-action remake of 101 Dalmatians (1996) and subsequent sequel, 102 Dalmatians (1998), created a surge in demand for Dalmatians, another exceptionally energetic breed that requires extensive exercise. Fans rushed out to buy the irresistible Dalmatian puppies they recognized from the movie, but were frequently unwilling to spend the time and energy that caring for the grown-up version requires. According to Debbie Purfurst, president of Dalmatian Rescue of Colorado, “We saw a huge influx of dogs into the shelters two to three years after the [1996] movie—probably a fifty percent rise. When they're not cute anymore and they're unruly because the owner hasn't taken the time to get them formally trained . . . these owners are just beside themselves and give the dogs up,” she says. It doesn't help that Dalmatian puppies have a tendency to knock young children to the ground, owing to their natural strength and exuberance. “Dalmatians are very active, grow quickly and are typically taller than the children. So we recommend puppies for older kids and older dogs for younger kids,” says Purfurst. 

However, being cute and photogenic isn't the only factor that attracts potential pet owners. A reputation for brains and intelligence can also play a role. “A book came out called The Intelligence of Dogs that ranked border collies as the #1 smartest dog,” recalls Carter, “and after that we started hearing a lot of people saying, ‘I really want one.’” The intelligence factor might help explain why miniature pigs became popular household pets in the 1990s—a trend that was somewhat reinvigorated by the title character of Babe. Not surprisingly, miniature pig owners could handle their animals when they were, well, mini. But miniature pig is really a misnomer and adults were frequently dismayed to find their cuddly Babe-like piglet growing up to be a pushy, headstrong, 100-plus pound heavyweight.

Considering the reliable on-screen appeal of animals there's no end in sight to this phenomenon. It doesn't even take a feature-length film to get the attention of animal lovers. Eddie, the Jack Russell terrier featured on NBC's primetime hit Frasier, has almost single-handedly created a surge in demand for that hard-to-handle breed. Still, the impact of major motion pictures remains more powerful, as evidenced by rescue groups' fear of sequels and video releases. “Every time they release a new video it's a nightmare. We don't get a break,” says Purfurst. 

So what should you do if you see an animal on television or at the movies that you have to have? Before you make a hasty decision, research the animal's needs and disposition to see if it matches your lifestyle and ability to provide for its physical and emotional well-being. Otherwise your life may begin revolving around your pet instead of your pet adapting to you. “I can't tell you how many people I've met or known who bought a farm or actually went out and bought sheep,” offers Carter. 

In the end, you also might want to consider how that potential pet might feel about living in your house. It's ironic that Finding Nemo fans are purchasing home aquariums when Nemo and his friends wanted nothing more than to escape their tank and return to the ocean. Apparently that irony hasn't been lost on every fish owner, some of whom have taken it upon themselves to relocate the contents of their fishbowl: Roto-Rooter and other plumbing services have reported receiving calls from distressed parents after their children flushed the family fish down the toilet.