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Fixing Nemo

I have two cats, and every once in a while they get sick. Having a sick pet inevitably forces an animal owner into an uncomfortable moral calculus: How much are you willing to spend to save your pet’s life? Everyone has a different number. Depending on my debt/savings ratio, I’d kick out about $1,000, which many people would no doubt consider berserk; christ, aren’t there bigger problems in the world that could use that money? Yet I’ve heard of wealthy New Yorkers spending several orders of magnitude more than that.

But how far would you go for … a goldfish? In this week’s New York Times Magazine, my friend Rebecca Skloot writes a superb article about the emerging area of fish surgery. And we’re not talking about $10,000 prize goldfish. No, we’re talking about people spending buckets of money to save the lives of fish they bought for, like, 25 cents. But, as she notes, it’s still a pretty new field:

Ten years ago, the chances of finding a fish vet were slim. But true to its history, veterinary medicine is steadily evolving to meet the demands of pet owners. Through the early 1900’s, vets treated livestock mostly. You didn’t treat cats and dogs — you usually shot those. But by the mid-50’s, the world was in love with Rin Tin Tin and Lassie, and people started thinking, I shouldn’t have to shoot my dog. By the 70’s, dogs and cats could get human-quality medical care — but treating birds? That was insane. Instead, bird advice came from pet stores (and birds died of a ”draft,” a diagnosis akin to the vapors). Yet by the 80’s, avian medicine had its own academic programs, a professional society, at least one monthly magazine and a large clientele. Today we have surgery for parakeets, organ transplantation for dogs and cats, chemotherapy for gerbils. But people who want to take fish to the vet — those people are still crazy. At least for the time being.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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