by Adam Denish, DVM
When I ask my clients why they selected their particular animal as a pet, typical responses are: “I wanted something I could cuddle with” or “I couldn’t resist those eyes” or “I like to hear the cheerful sound of his chirping” or “I wanted a friendly face to greet me when I come home.”
Enter the dragonfish. An extreme case of an increasingly popular impetus behind choosing a pet: luxury. Similar to the desire to own a priceless work of art, dragonfish—particularly the red variety—have become a prized possession among the super wealthy in some countries.
While banned in the U.S., as it is listed as an endangered species, the status acquired by owning a fish that has recently sold for as high as $300,000 is an extravagance that many have aspired to but few have been able to attain. Real-life heists to steal the fish rival the action in a James Bond film. The incredible tales are detailed in a new book by author Emily Voigt.
The dragonfish, aka Asian arowana, can reach an adult length of almost two feet. The name dragonfish is used because the fish resemble a “dragon in full flight.” They are covered in large shiny scales that can range in color, depending on the breed, from green to grey, yellow, white albino, gold, and red.
In nature, these fish are found in freshwater swamps running through the forests of Southeast Asia. Over the years, habitat loss and over collection by aquarium hobbyists have pushed the Asian arowana to the level of endangered. The Endangered Species Act requires an owner to have a permit to keep a dragonfish. CITES (the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species) oversees captive breeding on fish farms in Asia. With proper credentials, dragonfish that have been bred in captivity for at least two generations may be sold. The fish receives a microchip for identification and the buyer receives a birth certificate and a certificate of authenticity.
But a fish can’t be cuddly or interact beyond the confines of a glass tank. So why invest in a fish? Not only does the prospect of owning a creature that may eventually reach the level of extinction appeal to some, enthusiasts claim that the dragonfish brings good fortune and will jump out of the water to protect its owner from harm.
The folklore surrounding the dragonfish makes it irresistible to many and is a driving force behind the increasingly successful methods for the captive breeding of exotic fish and manufacturing genetically altered fish that do not exist in nature. Ornamental fish such as pond koi and flowerhorn cichlids are examples of designer fish that, like trading cards, have become collectible.
The demand for exotic fish exists and the high prices people are willing to pay have provided a strong drive for fish farming and successful strategies for genetic manipulations. Fish farming has thus far saved the dragonfish from impending extinction. However, fish raised in this manner are fated to always be kept by humans. Releasing lab created animals back into the wild often becomes a potentially dangerous situation all around. For more on this, read Jurassic Park.
The issue becomes a “Which came first: the fish or the egg?” conundrum. The practice of breeding fish in captivity and manipulating their genetic diversity is controversial. However, taking animals from the wild and destroying their habitat is a conservation no-no.
So should you gather up all your goldfish and trade them in for a beautiful dragonfish? If you are thinking of purchasing an expensive ornamental fish, do your research. There are countless stories of exotic animals being confiscated by the authorities. Find out if the animal is legally allowed to be owned. Learn the origin of the animal.
While fish breeding in captivity is a relief to the environment, be sure the breeding facility is reputable. You may also have recourse should your fish have a health issue. Also, as with any animal, know the housing requirements for your fish. Water quality, filtration, substrates, space, tank mates, and food are key components in keeping fish. Talk with other exotic fish owners. Hobbyists enjoy sharing their experiences. Seek out message boards online as well as experts at aquariums. Consider the expenses. While the individual cost of the fish is a factor by itself, costs for the tank equipment, food, and potential need for veterinary care should also figure into your decision.
Lastly, think about your lifestyle. Unlike land animals that can go to a boarding kennel or stay with a friend while you leave for a business trip or vacation, fish will need someone to visit your home while you are away. While we understand the appeal of an exotic fish like this, we strongly discourage ownership of any endangered species.