Electric Catfish, Part 2: Edison

James's Bengal cat, Aslan

by guest writer James Smith
My second electric catfish, Edison, was doubtless purchased as part of an act of subconscious hostility towards one of my other pets. At least, that’s how it seemed later.

I had cut back on my fish-keeping—partly to have more room to devote to my major interest, reptiles and amphibians—although I did maintain a 30-gallon marine tank (the store where I worked, and still work, had just begun carrying saltwater fish and I wanted to be competent.) Marine fish are fascinating, beautiful and can, with proper selection and care, be hardy animals—if expensive. The hobby has come a long, long way from the old days. However, my marine endeavors were curtailed thanks to a very bored and highly predatory animal that shared my house—a domestic cat, specifically a Bengal named Aslan.

Bengals are gorgeous animals, deriving from a cross between a regular domestic cat and an Asian wildcat called the leopard cat (no relation to the leopard, apart from both being cats—leopard cats are around the size of a big domestic.) The more the wildcat blood is diluted, the smaller and more manageable the cat, as a rule: Aslan weighs about thirteen pounds, no bigger than a normal cat and smaller than my overweight female Maine Coon cross. Bengals do have a down side: they are very energetic and destructive when mood suits them; they have a distinct and very unpleasant yowl, best described as the sound a peacock might make while trying to impersonate an echolocating whale; and they have an incredible prey drive.

Aslan would spend hours leering in through the tank at my saltwater fish, and one day I arrived home to the inevitable: the cat, in my absence, had jumped up on the tank, and pawed open the hood, probably out of simple curiosity—he does the same thing with cabinet doors that don’t have a real latch. The fish, conditioned to rise when they sensed a tap up there signaling food, had come to the surface—where they were easy prey for the Bengal.

I swore off fish entirely for a while after that, but eventually I broke down and set up a 20-gallon long-style tank, and while musing about what to put in it, ran across a young electric catfish in a specialty aquarium store, again about six inches long. Given the sedentary habits and slow growth of the fish, I decided he would be fine in the tank I had for some time to come, and purchased him. As I say, I’m sure a psychologist would have a field day with the whys and wherefores here—they’d probably argue I had to know what was coming. All I can say is, I never consciously thought about the inevitable meeting until it happened.

This catfish, christened Edison, was a bit more outgoing than Galvani, perhaps due to being the only fish in his tank, and was out prowling about at all hours (I did not keep a light on in the tank, given the nocturnal behavior of its occupant.) I did give him live feeder fish from time to time, and he did appear to use his current to kill or stun them—the problem in ascertaining this was that as any aquarist knows, dumping a fish straight into a different tank can kill it from shock. So whether it was “death from shock” or “death from shocking” was open to question. When I gave him a baby crayfish about the size of a bee, however, Edison unmistakably made use of his current to subdue the crustacean.

Edison had initially simply tried to grab the crayfish in his jaws, but after receiving a pinch to the nose for his efforts, he retreated just beyond claw-range and seemed to almost be taking stock of the situation. The crayfish spun and pivoted wildly for several seconds while Edison hung back, and I could not help feeling a little sorry for it: it was clearly trying to keep its claws facing danger at all times, and in its efforts to deflect any fish that might be creeping up from behind, actually wound up doing the precise opposite every so often.

As with Galvani’s defensive strike, there was nothing to indicate that Edison had just released his weapon—no equivalent to a rattler’s S-coil or the dramatic handstand display of a skunk—except for the crayfish’s reaction: it flipped on its back, convulsed once, and lay still. Edison swam over, and, apparently satisfied of its death after cautious probing with his whiskers, set about ripping the crayfish into manageable chunks, shaking and worrying at it. It was like watching a bottom-dwelling shark—a nurse shark, say—in miniature, at work on a lobster.

In the course of tank maintenance, Edison managed to zap me a couple of times, something Galvani had never done—of course, Galvani had more room to maneuver out of the way in the 75. I’m uncertain just how high he had the juice turned up, because while it was startling and certainly unpleasant—rather like a very bad doorknob shock from discharging static electricity—it was less painful than assorted stings and bites I’ve suffered at various times over my checkered career. Granted, he was a small fish. But I have an idea things could have been much worse had he felt truly threatened, because one day, the epic confrontation of Cat vs. Catfish finally occurred.

Aslan, who had been on model behavior for over a month, finally succumbed to his baser urges and decided to send Edison the same way as he had the saltwater fish. I was sitting in my easy chair, multi-tasking—watching a movie, reading and having a snack—when I heard the telltale thump of the cat landing atop the tank and the sound of him pawing at the lid, then the splash of his paw in the water. I was getting up to shoo the cat off the tank when Edison saved me the trouble. Aslan let out an unholy screech and shot into the air with all four feet. He came down bristling, arching and spitting like a witch’s Halloween cat, snarling and shaking his head as he bounded out of the room. From that time on, Aslan studiously avoided Edison’s tank, to the point of not even resting on top of it as he frequently did—and still does—with some of my reptile cages.

Edison died unexpectedly about two years ago—I was home one night when I heard the splash of a jumping fish, and turned to see him flapping and gasping on the floor. Scooping him up with a piece of cardboard and dumping him back into the tank, I watched as he settled to the bottom. I had seen fish survive jumping from tanks before and assumed he would recover. Unfortunately, he must have fallen in just the right way to damage something internally, and within a day or two, he was dead. Since the electric charge of a dead fish can still fire by reflex until decay causes the organ to break down, I netted him out somewhat gingerly.  After placing him in a small wooden box, I took him down to the garden—where most of the family’s pets have ended up after shuffling off this mortal coil—and interred him next to the horseradish. Somehow such a remarkable fish deserved more than “burial at sea” or simply being tossed over the neighbors’ bank for the crows or resident fox to clean up.

Edison’s tank is now inhabited by a Ruthven’s kingsnake, and I currently have no fish. But it’s only a matter of time and circumstance before I set up another tank—and I have more than half an idea that if I only find space and time for one aquarium, with one fish in it, that fish will be an electric catfish.

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