NEWPORT NEWS, VA. There's no coat to brush and fluff. No nails to clip, or teeth to brush.
Forget obedience training because they don't respond to verbal commands.
And you will never find a leash to fit their itty-bitty necks.
Instead, you feed them eight times a day and hope they grow fast and multiply many times over.
You keep your fingers crossed that they don't just sit on the bottom of the tank when the judges stop to evaluate them, and you hope the show's lighting brings out their iridescent colors.
Welcome to Steve Urick's world. He raises fancy guppies to compete in internationally sanctioned shows.
"I have been keeping tropical fish and goldfish longer than I've been working with plants," says Urick, who coordinates training and education at McDonald Garden Center in Hampton, Va.
"About a year ago I decided I wanted to raise show guppies, with the intention of competing."
These fish are a far cry from the guppies you see in a pet store. Those are colorless creatures the kind you buy 10 for a dollar that bigger fish like to eat.
Fancy guppies swim in a fish bowl all their own. They come in blues, purples, yellows, reds and greens even AOC, meaning "any other color," and cost $50 to $75 for a trio.
Taking home the prize
Raising guppies is a specialized, organized hobby that brings out fierce competition among collectors. Some breeders get so secretive about personally developed strains that they label their aquariums with codes so no visiting breeder can decipher them.
So far, Urick has entered only two shows staged by the International Fancy Guppy Assn. (www.ifga.org) but his wins are already raising eyebrows among more experienced guppy growers. In early May, six of his 10 entries in a New Jersey show brought home awards.
A particular award makes him grin like a proud papa. One of his Purple Deltas won first place against an entry by Stan Shubel, who is regarded as one of the world's best breeders of show guppies. Shubel, who has been raising guppies since the 1960s, has published a book on the subject.
"When I walked over and saw the first-place sticker on the tank, I had to do a double-take and try to remember if No. 10 was mine," says Urick. That certificate and a photo of the winning sticker stuck on the tank hang where he can see it each time he enters his fish room.
Guppies he shipped to a second show also won nicely, but a Purple Delta came back a little ragged, he says. It can be a trying experience for fish. Single fish are placed in a 4-by-8-inch clear plastic bag filled with half water and air, then double bagged to cushion their trip. The bags go into an insulated box for overnight shipment. At the show, experienced guppy handlers put them in tanks, then repack them for the return trip home. Breeders are encouraged to ship only guppies they are willing to lose, because the trip can be damaging.
If Urick drives to a show, he transports his guppies in coolers.
"If they get a split in their tail fin, points will be deducted. You have to have nice-looking fins," he says.
Any prize-winning guppy needs to exhibit balance a 1-to-1 ratio with a tail as long as its body, he says. A big flowing tail always gets a judge's approving attention. The back dorsal and tail fins should match perfectly in color, and some added body color picks up a few extra points. Color is judged on density the amount of color in a specific area and intensity, or brightness of color. Judging criteria are all spelled out in a 31-page "blue book" sanctioned by the guppy association.
"You want them to swim around and strut their stuff," he says. "And a lot of purple color on the body of a purple-finned fish will get you extra points. But a Moscow purple, when scared, tends to go gray, so if a judge picks up a bowl and shakes it, you could have a nothing-color fish.
The breeder's 1,400 guppies stay warm and cozy in an 80-degree fish room that takes up half of a double-car garage at his home. Low lights and a blower keep the room temperature pretty constant. The room is lined with plywood and foam insulation sealed with silicone caulk to contain any moisture.
The guppies live in 70 5- and 10-gallon aquariums lined along shelves. Urick changes about 50 percent of the water in the tanks twice a week and recycles the water to garden hoses for his flowers outdoors. A system of PVC plastic pipes and brass shutoff valves control air flow to each aquarium.
"I need a lot more algae eaters," he says, looking at the tanks, which, he says, need cleaning. The guppies, however, thrive in almost any quality water. Two cory catfish per 10-gallon tank stir up the bottom and eat any food that falls to the bottom.
The guppies are fed a staple food made of fish meal and oils, shrimp and crab meal, bloodmeal, spirulina (blue-green algae) and krill (a shrimplike food). For a treat, he feeds them brine shimp, which he hatches from eggs purchased in a coffee can-sized container. A quarter teaspoon hatches 100,000 to 150,000 baby shrimp.
A guppy's lifespan is only a year or two, but they are prolific breeders, producing 50 to 100 babies in 28 to 30 days three times a year. A pregnant guppy looks as if she swallowed a marble. The young are born swimming and able to take care of themselves. Most survive, but their show quality depends on the pureness of the strain. About 80 percent of the offspring from pure-strain parents will be show quality, but only 1 percent to 2 percent of the offspring from a cross between breeds may make the cut.
Urick, who is a member of the Chesapeake Guppy Club, has high hopes for a new purple line that he's breeding. To avoid inbreeding problems, he's breeding lines A (chosen for color) and B (chosen for size) separately for three generations, and then he plans to cross them.
His goal: lots of purple color in their bodies to grab extra points for bigger wins.