Most of you have probably heard of these "GloFish" several times over the past few months. Originally bred for more justifiable reasons than giving kids glowing pet fish, they're common zebra fish with a tacked on gene that grants them florescence. As the official site explains, GloFish are used to detect toxins in the environment. Despite a few ethical questions and at least one statewide ban, GloFish are now available as aquarium pets at the affordable suggested retail of five bucks per fish.

The photo above is used on the official site, which claimed that it was taken under "natural white light." As someone who owns GloFish, I can tell you that the hype is unwarranted. They're pretty fish, and they've got some sort of eerie shine going, but they don't "glow." At least not in the sense most buyers will be expecting. You're advised to put the fish under a blacklight for the full effect -- that gives them a more distinct glow, but the same could be said for any number of common aquarium fish, just as cheap as these guys.

Don't blame the breeders if you're disappointed. With all of the press -- both good and bad -- the GloFish have been made to seem more different than they actually are. I walked around the pet store, more or less searching for a tank full of swimming light bulbs. I couldn't believe how normal the GloFish actually seemed...

Certainly more notable than the animals themselves are what they could mean for the future. Those who don't appreciate this sort of tampering are sharp enough to realize that the rest of the world won't join the rally over zebra fish, so they've chosen a different protest route. The biggest argument is that it's damaging to set any kind of precedent with something like this. If they get away with mutating fish, it opens the door to move up the ladder. Rabbits with lime green fur, cats with tailor-bred tails designed in the shape of their owner's first initial. Finally, flying dogs. So far, the most convincing arguments completely overlook the zebra fish -- we're simply asked "what's next?"

If you're against the general idea of GloFish, you've probably picked a bad species to start things off with. A quick stroll through any pet store reveals at least a dozen animals that don't (and can't) live in the wild, bred only to our desired effects. Just because these fish have a superpower that sounds wackier doesn't make the process much different from what we've been seeing for years.

All that said, I had to buy a GloFish. Animal tampering, morals and yadda yadda -- I'll save my gripes for when they market a pet a little less interesting than fish that glow. I had to have these things, and even if my first in-person sight of them at the pet store wasn't met with any holy shits or oh my Gods, I fully intended to wake up the next morning with a tank of GloFish being the first thing I saw. As things turned out, it was only the seventh. The clock came first, but the fish didn't even beat the coffee machine.

If you're thinking about buying GloFish, here's what you should expect...

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First off, the suggested retail of five bucks each doesn't necessarily mean anything -- I paid six each for these three -- the added expense put me past the intended budget, so I couldn't buy the requisite plastic plant. A filtered tank is of course preferred, but for better photos, my three GloFish temporarily took residence in the small tank shown above. Seven bucks, plus two more for the gravel. Still, they're some of the cheapest pals available in pet stores, and they're the only ones alleged to glow.

I immediately took notice of the GloFish's impressive activity level -- the Siamese Fighting Fish may be more eye-catching, but these zebras never quit dashing around. They also seem more animated than most freshwater aquarium fish of their size, with each appearing to assume completely different personalities from the others. What I'm telling you is about a 60% full load of shit, but I had to find some pros after the big "glowing" bit went sour.

Here's a closer look at two of my three fishies -- this is what you're buying:

There had to be at least five dozen GloFish in that big tank at the pet store, and at least 50 of 'em beared a close resemblence to the one shown on the right. The zebra fish's name, obviously, comes from the series of stripes running across the body. GloFish like the one shown at left seem far less typical, with the stripes being replaced with what look more like "dots." It's also much more swollen looking than the stripies -- either it's pregnant, or the Russians have finally invaded using tiny android fish-bots that look perfectly real save for the glow of their inner energy crystal. Nah. Like Ben Affleck said in "The Sum of All Fears," no less than fifty-seven times in a span of two hours, it's not the Russians.

As you can see, the "glow" isn't very apparent. There's a catch, though. Through searching around to read other buyers' feelings on GloFish, I've realized that there's good batches and bad batches. Some people are willing to swear on their faith that the GloFish they purchased really did glow. Others say they're virtually normal. I'm somewhere in the middle: they're not doing anything spectacular, but they do look kinda interesting. It's those damn pictures on the official site and all of the news stories that's throwing us off. Fish always sound better on the menu.

I'm betting that there's plenty of GloFish available that better represent the pre-game hooplah. Just don't count on it. Of my trio, the two shown above formed an immediate bond, and refused to let the third GloFish play their glowing reindeer games. These guys dart around the tank like lunatics 24 hours a day, and I'll be damned if they don't look like they're having fun doing it. The third fish? He just tries to keep up. When and if he finally catches his siblings, they shake their tail-fins and zoom away, tossing in a side memento of fish shit at least part of the time. Meet the lonely third GloFish...unnamed, and unloved.

You can almost see the despair in his eyes -- the third fish is easily the best looking of the trio, but his scaly hotness is taken down a notch by the pissy demeanor. He knows he's the odd man out, the third wheel, and worst of all, a much maligned proponent of people saying "three's a crowd!" He is the fish without a home, and no matter how many tank decorations or special food I toss in there, he's never going to be happy here. I'd find him a new home, but that sounds like a lot of work.

For what it's worth, I gave these guys the blacklight treatment. It definitely helps bring out the entire point of calling the things "GloFish," and I'd imagine that a tank full of the little guys under a blacklight is a real sight. If we assume that children are the key demographic with GloFish sales, they should bring in money. Thinking about what we miss most about being kids, believing in anything we wanted to be real has to be one of the big ones. If kids want glowing fish, they're gonna see glowing fish -- even if they're really not.

I've read that sales started off strong, but ultimately dropped to the point where it's not even correct to call it a "craze." There's some real contenders on the horizon, though. In Japan, honest-to-goodness glow-in-the-dark fish have become popular pets. Those aren't legal here -- probably because there's no valid excuse involving "toxin detection" to cover for the species' creation. Course, if serious collectors wanted such a fish, chances are good that they'd figure out a way to get them. Sugar gliders aren't legal to own where I live, but I can name at least three pet stores within a ten minute driving distance willing to "special order" 'em.

Okay, so maybe the GloFish aren't all they're cracked up to be. They're still nice, and I'm not going to neglect them just because they aren't glowing. While those familiar flakes are the most common food to give these guys, I opted for something a little more upscale.

It's the "Fancy Feast" of the fish food aisle: "Zooplankton." It's the world's finest fish food, and don't tell me it isn't, 'cause the label says it is. The name is appropriate, as the ingredients only include water and literal zooplankton. When they say the seas teem with life, zooplankton is the easiest way to validate it: these tiny animals speckle the oceans so thoroughly that a pint of water taken from virtually any ocean would be swarming with countless zooplankkin' individuals. Zooplankton is credited with more or less maintaining the entire sea, so feeding it to a trio of mutant GloFish seemed like the right thing to do. More honestly, it came in a really neat glass jar. I couldn't resist the jar.

You have to keep it refrigerated, and I hope you've got disposable dinnerware on hand to scoop it out with. Oh, and it looks like fish shit. The aroma is interesting, in the same way the aroma is interesting when your friend leaves the room and you decide to smell his sneakers. Why'd I pass on the flakes again?

Oh yeah..that damn glass jar.

All in all, I'd have to call the GloFish a disappointment. It's not their fault, of course, and it may not even be the fault of their ruthless creators. It's our own fault. We took the hook, and we believed the hype. We thought we could buy fish capable of illuminating our living rooms for just five bucks a pop. We're not living in Babylon -- at least not until the Japanese zip over with those glow-in-the-dark beauties. Get ready for Round 2.

- Matt (1/12/03)