Snakehead Invasion: Do We Even Understand These Fish With Feet?

I find animals problematic. I do not underestimate their aesthetic value, and while on occasion I have expressed enthusiasm for certain species—some equine breeds, some birds, a reptile or two—I mostly don’t experience the sort of thing people describe as a real interspecies connection. I spend a lot of time thinking about finger-sized tamarins or knee-high falabellas, and yet I’m fairly certain I don’t really want to be in the presence of either.

I also can’t with much force say that I care about an animal’s well-being over mine. When I watch a crocodile shred a zebra on television, as I did recently, I wince, but only because I find myself identifying even less with the crocodile than the zebra. When a pet, however charming, becomes distressed, I turn away. Often I find myself contributing to their distress. This, of course, makes me rather problematic for some people.

There was a gray-blue cat that lived with my family as a child, and when it died, I mourned its loss for a week, as seemed appropriate. It was replaced with a blue-gray cat, given the same name, and that was the end of it. For a brief period, I thought exotic rodents worth a try. This turned out to be rather shortsighted. Most exotic rodents, of course, spend their time deep inside little wooden exotic-rodent houses. I purchased a hamster with my pocket money. It ran on its wheel, which I found engaging, but then it bit me and was returned to the pet shop. The wheel went, too. I did not mourn its absence, mostly because I thought I was dying of rabies.

The trouble with animals is that they can’t really do anything. They can’t read or do fractions, and they are always trying to kill each other or me. The latter in particular terrifies me. I find myself frequently exposed to dogs trying to maul each other in New York—never mind sport-mauling birds or squirrels and cats. Everywhere I turn, dogs are at it, thirsty for blood. I am bound to be next.

Dogs are one thing; big toothy fish are another. Last weekend a great white shark, or something equally menacing and large, pulled a buoy, followed by two lifeguards on a jet ski, out into the ocean less than a hundred yards from the Amagansett shore. Around the same time, a school of snakehead fish was found in a pond in Queens. Experts suspect they are of the northern variety. The largest of the five captured was 28 inches long. This is nearly the size—give or take eight feet—of a great white shark.

The trouble with snakehead fish is that we don’t even know what they are. Most snakeheads are comfortable in all sorts of temperatures, from icy to tepid water, and are described as being able to tuck their fins under their long vile bodies and march across land from one body of water to the next, surviving on land for up to four days. They have rudimentary feet. They have a set of teeth so extensive and sharp that they devour everything in sight. This makes them more upsetting than eels, which are the only other fish creature known to migrate across land en masse. Thankfully, this is now only the second-worst animal act we might experience.

Snakeheads are strong, ruthless and seemingly invincible. They decimate entire aqueous living arrangements because they can. They muscle their way in and stay. What’s to say they won’t suddenly get bored of that pond in Queens once they’ve eaten every turtle, minnow, bass and carp, and sally forth over the Queensboro Bridge or through the midtown tunnel on their rudimentary feet and into Manhattan’s sewage system? What evidence do we have that I will not soon find a snakehead swimming in my toilet bowl or having sullied my drinking water supply, squeezing itself out of my tap and walking into my bedroom?

They have been called “nasty Frankenfish,” “nightmarish,” “invasive predator,” “freakish,” “the baddest bunny in the bush,” an “outlaw,” a “pit-bull with fins” or, simply, “thing.” One of its staunchest supporters, Maurice Martin, a reporter for the Washington City Paper, told last summer of a cooler of seemingly dead snakehead fish, sealed and weighted down with a brick, out of which one snakehead managed to struggle free and was seen several yards later stampeding towards the Annapolis sewage system. Since 2002, when the species was first spotted on American shores, it has become a national concern (Interior Secretary Gale Norton made one of the first horrified announcements), as well as a cinematic one (the Sci-Fi Channel drama Snakehead Terror, 2004). Just last week, an editorial titled “An Unwelcome Fish” in The New York Times was reprinted in the International Herald Tribune. Snakehead terror gone global.

But snakehead fish shouldn’t be here. They’re not supposed to be in this country or continent, and they’re certainly not supposed to be in my city. When they were hanging out in the Potomac devouring bass, I was concerned, but I knew I was safe. When they slid west toward Michigan and California, I sought solace in the fact that the worst thing I had to worry about in New York were terrorists. New York—resilient, cautious and sort of better than anywhere else—has now reached the ultimately palatable terror code yellow. Except that I can’t savor it, because now I have to worry about monster fish destroying my natural habitat.

Is this yet a further reminder that New York is descending into just-like-everywhere-else mediocrity? We couldn’t prevent everyone-else from taking over large swaths of Brooklyn and east Manhattan; we couldn’t hold back everything-else from corrupting our retail market with dirt-cheap trend wear. But I’d prefer to believe that at least New York long ago superseded the natural world and its disasters. We manage to avoid earthquakes, floods, locust plagues and hurricanes. As New Jersey has begun flapping its wings about a too rapidly growing bear population, I find myself wedged in on both sides by equally disconcerting possibilities for my demise. Could it be that bears swim more efficiently than snakeheads walk? Perhaps I ought to consider a move to London, where terror codes are still adequately high.