Archive for Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Bettas star in pet show

March 12, 2003

It's not your typical pet show.

The pets don't bark, growl or meow, they never need a leash, and it would be a big surprise if they curled up at your feet.

Jeff and Cheryl Hiller hold a jar containing one beta. Cheryl helps
Jeff with all aspects of their beta project.

Jeff and Cheryl Hiller hold a jar containing one beta. Cheryl helps Jeff with all aspects of their beta project.

But they do swim -- a lot.

Jeff Hiller, president of the International Betta Congress, a non-profit, international organization, invites the public to attend a betta show and auction, set March 22 at the Leavenworth County Fairgrounds in Tonganoxie. The event opens to the public at noon and includes an auction of betta fish at 4 p.m.

Hiller, who has lived in Tonganoxie for 20 years, said he expects that 20 breeders from across the United States and other countries, will show about 400 to 500 fish. He estimated that about 100 of the bettas will be auctioned. The fish generally sell for $3 to $30 each at auction, he said.

Betta auctions attract determined bidders of all ages, said Hiller, who attended a betta show in Denver last week.

"Kids from 5 years old were bidding against people 50 years old," Hiller said. "It was hilarious."

A big-screen beta swims across the family room television. Hiller
has found that a good way to photograph his fish is by using a
video camera.

A big-screen beta swims across the family room television. Hiller has found that a good way to photograph his fish is by using a video camera.

To draw interest, Hiller has sent fliers to Kansas City and Lawrence pet shows.

While the breeders, who raise and ship the fish, are important, the newcomers are also important.

"Most of the people that are coming are going to own one fish," Hiller said. "The average hobbyist -- that's who I really want here. I just want to pull in the average guy that's got one fish at home and wants a second fish, or one that's prettier than the first."

Very little equipment

For wanna-be pet owners who fear a long-term commitment, a betta might be a good choice.

The fish only live about three years, Hiller said.

And it doesn't take a lot of equipment to get started.

"There's minimal equipment needed," Hiller said.

A half-gallon fish bowl and food are all that's required. Because the bettas have organs called labyrinths, they don't require aereated tanks. The labyrinth lets them breathe air through the surface of their bodies when they go to the top of the tank.

Bettas, also called Siamese fighting fish, are known for their brilliant colors, as well as their aggressive behavior. Mature bettas are such fighters that they can't be kept in the same aquarium, except for the short time they're together for breeding.

But bettas can live with other fish.

"They only fight amongst themselves," Hiller said. "In a community tank, they are the ones with the long flowing beautiful fins and other fish in the tank have a tendency to pick on them -- the betta will not retaliate."

Or, another way of putting it is this: "A little bitty guppy could run it off in a corner," Hiller said.

A longtime betta lover

Hiller, who is 44, is what might be called a serious betta enthusiast.

"I've had bettas off and on since I was a child," Hiller said. "But I never took it up to quite this level."

The step-up began about four years ago.

"I started showing and getting involved in the bigger organizations, including the International Betta Congress," Hiller said.

The Hillers have about 25 aquariums, more than most people would ever dream of. And Hiller, who operates a Web site called Jeff's Betta Biosphere, knows the ABC's of betta breeding.

First of all, it's easy to tell the males from the females -- the males' fins are about twice as long.

After a mature male and female are put in one aquarium, the spawning process takes from 36 to 48 hours. In another 36 hours, the eggs hatch.

For a day and a half after that the fry, or small fish, are nourished by their yolk sacs until they become free swimming, dining on microworms and live baby brine shrimp.

When the bettas reach maturity at five months, they have to be separated from one another so they won't fight.

Hiller's supply of bettas is low right now. He's been trimming down his breeding over the last months, but plans to step it up again soon. He and his wife, Cheryl, who helps take care of the bettas, added two decks to the back of their house that have built-in ponds for water plants and bettas' summer living quarters. The bettas grow faster when raised outdoors, he said.

Through his involvement in bettas, Hiller has made friends across the country. Whenever he travels to a city he knows it's likely there's a betta enthusiast to meet.

For him, it's just a hobby that's grown.

"Like any hobby, I think there's some passion for it," Hiller said. "Like anything in life, if you don't have passion for what you're doing, then go do something else."

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