Coming this Wednesday, Sept 16th
Greenie, my Green Sunfish friend has always been special, but he’s about to become, well, famous! On Wednesday he will be the subject of Boyd Huppert’s “Land of 10,000 Stories” on the KARE 11 news, 10pm CDT. I’m excited to see the underwater video and what they chose for the short segment. Here is a bit more of his story.
It was 2016 when I noticed him in his nest by my dock. The males are notorious for guarding their nests, but there was something very different about the way he looked at me. Soon he was rubbing against my leg like a cat and letting me pet him. When he showed up the next year and acted the same, I offered him the Japanese beetles I pulled off my flowers. He was so excited his orange highlights almost glowed. That seemed to cement the friendship. I named him Greenie so I’d remember his species, since I never knew much about fish. In 2018, there was a smaller fish with him who was just as friendly. His offspring? I noticed he used only his left pectoral fin. Eventually the right one healed and had a scar. That made positive identification easy, but it’s usually behavior that helps me tell one animal from another.
I understand why people might be skeptical, and think this is just a fish story. I remember hearing, as a child, that fish couldn’t feel pain, much less anything else. At first I wondered if I was just the “human at the dock” and this was their territory. That changed the day I took my daily swim and decided to sit on a log at the other end of the lake to watch the sunset. It was lovely. Then I looked down and saw someone looking up at me. Spot? Really? I put my hand in and he came and nuzzled it, and I saw the white scar that proved it was him. Oh, my goodness. Greenie has done the same, sometimes following me to the other end of the lake or to someone else’s dock, surprising them as well as me.This year, I anxiously awaited ice out. I couldn’t help but wonder if they wondered, as I did about them, “Did my friend make it through the winter?” There they were – the first two fish to show up. I was delighted, and even more motivated to swim every day, anxious to see who was out there.
Greenie came and went often, which made me happy that he was exploring the lake, as he should. Spot (named for the spot on his dorsal fin) had a bit of oatmeal with me just about every morning. Not too long into the summer, there was a day when Spot came, but kept his distance. Had he been caught and released? I saw no wound, but was he not feeling well? People shy? Then he disappeared. Of course that made me sad, and I suspected Greenie felt the same. With the eagles, osprey, and herons that frequent our shores, I hoped he had contributed to the circle of life. But it wasn’t long before a new friend showed up. A bass! I’d never seen one hang around the dock with the sunnies, but this one stuck with Greenie, who seemed to accept this new friend. So I had to name him. His long, slender shape, so different from all the sunfish, made “Slim” appropriate. As usual, this sparked my curiosity and led to research. Bass are predators, but are in the sunfish family, which means they can also mate. I don’t know if Slim is Greenie’s buddy or girlfriend, but I’m glad my friend is much too big for Slim to consider as a meal! How do I know Greenie is a male? One summer I got to watch what I’d read about. After building a nest, he brought a girlfriend back to it and they did their courtship “dance” – around and around in circles on their sides before dropping eggs and sperm. Fascinating!
The advantages of a wild pet are obvious: no walking, litter box, or vet bills. But be warned. It hurts your heart when your friend shows up with a torn lip. That’s happened twice over the years with Greenie. The second time, he stared at me a long time before he dared come close. It took a beetle treat to regain his trust. But that trust was crucial this year, when he came to the dock with a hook in his mouth. Oh, no! Amazingly, he didn’t wiggle a fin as I held him and carefully removed the hook. Putting him back in the lake and watching him disappear, I wondered if I’d see him again, or if he would fear me. An hour later, I went for my swim and returned to find him waiting for me, welcoming my petting. Thank goodness he knew I was helping him. The next day he proved he was fine by jumping clear out of the water for a treat.I don’t like to preach, but felt the picture I’d taken of Greenie with the hook in his mouth was worth sharing, especially with the delightful video I’d gotten of him jumping. The response from Greenie’s fans was heartwarming. Surprising was the message from KARE 11 asking if they could do a story on him. Sure, as long as you don’t reveal our location.
To see seven seconds sure to make you smile, click here.
The next day Boyd and Chad were here with an underwater camera and a lot of patience. They recognized Greenie right away as the friendly one and he cooperated by showing great curiosity for the camera and staying all day. Slim and the others were around, but Greenie made sure he was the star, chasing them away when need be. I was happy to share our story, along with a few facts, like the study at Oxford and Queensland Universities that showed fish can recognize a face among forty-four others and remember it for at least six months! But after they left, I wanted to learn more. I called the university and found a wonderful resource – Dr. Peter Sorensen, ichthyologist – a doctor of fishology! He was clearly a fan of fish, as well as a scientist, saying they were much more intelligent than we give them credit for, and do have individual personalities. I was thrilled when he and his wife came out the next day to meet Greenie. Here was an expert, assuring me that Greenie, a senior citizen now, looked healthy and very special. He’d known fish in the lab who recognized him, but hadn’t seen a wild one with such clear interest in humans and trust of an individual.We traded books – my Enchanted for one called What a Fish Knows by Jonathan Balcombe. I was enthralled by the wealth of research, all confirming that a fish is an individual with relationships. He or she can use tools, plan and learn, perceive and innovate, soothe and scheme, experience moments of pleasure, fear, playfulness, pain, and, probably, joy.The days are getting shorter and the lake colder. Greenie’s not here every day, as he was in mid-summer, but greets me warmly when he is. I know the day will come when he’s hunkered down for the winter, and the day will also come when he’s no longer in my life. But he will forever be in my mind and heart, with immeasurable gratitude and an indelible message – all life is precious.
I can’t wait to see the story KARE 11 put together, and will provide a link when I can. In the meantime, click here to see a few tender moments between Greenie and me. Big thanks to Teresa Foushee for capturing us under water!
Footnote: (or fin-note!) The current administration has rolled back 100 environmental protections, endangering our air, water, and all species, including our own. Greenie would vote blue if he could. Will you do it for him?