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In Memoriam: State Fair Goldfish

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Photo courtesy of BuzzFeed.

This story was written for John Robinson’s “Feature Writing” class in the School of Media and Journalism. 

“Please? I promise I’ll take care of it,” Lily Olmo begged her father.

It was a conversation the two had had countless times. After 17 long years without knowing the love of a pet, Olmo was desperate to finally get one — even if it was just a goldfish.

As quickly as she raised the idea, her father shot it down. Dejected, Olmo continued to weave her way through the throngs under the Ferris wheels’ neon lights.

But Olmo saw a reminder on every corner. Signs in between booths advertising deep-fried banana puddin’ bites and turkey legs the size of a blue-collar forearm.

“Any ball in a dish wins a fish!”

Despite her father’s ruling, Olmo and her younger sister were determined to add a new member to their family. The two slipped away from their parents and snuck over to a stand where they could win a fish.

“We figured this would be a good way to force them into letting us have one,” Olmo said. “We ended up winning not one, but two goldfish.”

After living her whole life without a pet, suddenly Olmo had two.

But the next morning, disaster struck.

When Olmo woke, she checked on her prized possessions only to find a lone goldfish swimming in the bowl.

One of her pets had eaten the other. By that evening, the remaining fish was dead, too.

Olmo’s pets quickly met the fate countless state fair goldfish face: certain death within hours of leaving the safety of their tank.

It’s clear the fish realize the danger that the mesh net brings, as they frantically dart through the water to side-swim doom. But some fish aren’t quite fast enough.

Marc Janas, the general manager of Powers Great American Midway, has blithely witnessed the tragedy firsthand for more than 10 years. For nine months each year, Janas and his family travel up and down the East Coast, setting up more than 70 games, rides and food stands at fairs and carnivals.

But Janas doesn’t raid the local pet store for his supplies; these are top-notch goldfish.

“I’d say we probably got around 30,000 goldfish for the North Carolina State Fair,” Janas said. “They’re imported from fisheries around the country. We have specific hatcheries to make sure they’re good quality, which surprises most people.”

Janas said that on busy days at the North Carolina State Fair, his stands gave out between 2,000 and 3,000 goldfish. But Janas knew he was sending most of them to their death.

As for the survivors who escape the clutches of children and college students, Janas packs them up and takes them on the road to his next stop.

Junior Brooke Murad thought she was doing everything right. During her first year at UNC-Chapel Hill, Murad won two fish at the state fair and pulled out all the stops, splurging $10 on a small tank and fish food.

She even had her two pets long enough to give them names: Swim Shady and Ellen Degenerfish.

“We brought them home to our dorm, and within three days, things got weird,” Murad said. “Swim Shady started swimming upside-down around the top of the bowl with his mouth open, and Ellen Degenerfish stayed at the bottom but would occasionally lie down, which is weird for a fish, you know?”

Just days later, Murad found herself consoled by her closest friends in the bathroom of Hinton James Residence Hall; death had come for Swim Shady and Ellen Degenerfish.

But even in her mourning, Murad considered herself lucky. After all, most goldfish don’t survive the first night.

According to Nathan Beauchamp, a store leader at Petco Animal Supplies, fish owners can easily avoid such a tragedy as long as they’re willing to pay the price.

“They like to win the fish but don’t actually like to put money into the fish,” Beauchamp said. “Most people don’t get the right equipment for a goldfish to survive.”

Beauchamp said that with proper care, a goldfish should live anywhere from two to four years, not days.

“People go home and put it in a little bowl they already have instead of getting a proper tank,” Beauchamp said. “And most people either don’t have the space or the money to invest in that.”

Somehow, Tyler Beauchamp, unrelated to the Petco employee, continues to beat the odds. Not only did he win six goldfish, but miraculously they’re all still swimming a week later, thanks to significant effort on their owner’s part. The junior invested in a quality tank, filtration system and all.

“I’ve been doing everything to keep them alive,” Tyler Beauchamp said. “Feeding, cleaning, watching to see if any are moving slow. I’ve read way too many articles on goldfish over the past three days.”

Despite his pets’ short life expectancy, Tyler Beauchamp has already grown fond of the goldfish. He says he can tell all six apart.

“I feel pretty attached to them, which is sad because I’ve been told they won’t live very long,” Tyler Beauchamp said. “But my fish are hardy. I believe in them. I live in a house and keep the tank in the living room next to the TV so they can hang and watch with us.”

Janas closed up the last of his booths Sunday and loaded them onto trailers, ready to hit the road again. This time, 1,200 leftover goldfish ride in tow.

Next stop: The Cape Fear Fair in Wilmington, North Carolina.

While they may have cheated death once, some of the scaly, orange prizes will not be as lucky next time.

“I think it’s a family tradition, kind of like going to the state fair is,” Janas said. “We want everybody to have a nice souvenir. We like to try and keep every family or kid happy.”

At least for a day or so.

Zach Goins View All

Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Charlotte, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.

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