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One Fish, Big Fish, Old Fish: 'Buttkiss'

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One Fish, Big Fish, Old Fish: 'Buttkiss'

One Fish, Big Fish, Old Fish: 'Buttkiss'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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If you find yourself in the Richmond Hill neighborhood of Queens, New York and happen to see a pet store that looks straight out of 1965, take a moment to duck inside.

Among the wood paneling and the powerful smell of birdfeed, you'll find what some say may be the oldest living fish in New York City.

Vanessa Romo has the story. '

(Soundbite of chirping birds)

VANESSA ROMO: There's the adage about New York that if you can make it there, you'll make it anywhere. Well, if that's true there is a fish in Queens whose name ought to be up in lights. And that name is...

Mr. STEVE GRUEBEL (Owner, Cameo Pet Shop): Buttkiss.

ROMO: As in the football player Dick Buttkiss.

Mr. GRUEBEL: 'Cause he was so big, that's how he got his name.

ROMO: Steve Gruebel owns the Cameo Pet Shop and has been working there for 46 years. And for all but three, he's had Buttkiss by his side.

Mr. GRUEBEL: I got him in 1967. I sold him in 1968. And I got him back at the end of 1970, when I came home from Vietnam.

ROMO: So, not only is he huge Buttkiss weighs in at about 15 pounds and is 22 inches long he's also really old. As far as black pacus go, this fish is ancient. Already he's lived more than twice what the species normally do.

Mr. GRUEBEL: According to the books, they only live 20 years and he's 43, that I know of.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man and Woman: (Singing) I know I stand in line until you...

ROMO: To put it in perspective, this was the number on song in America the week Buttkiss was taking his first stroke.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man and Woman: (Singing) ...and if we go someplace to dance, I know that there's a chance you won't be leaving with me...

ROMO: The world has changed in myriad remarkable ways since then. There was the moon landing, the fall of the Soviet Empire, Lady Gaga...

(Soundbite of song, "Poker Face")

LADY GAGA (Musician): (Singing) Po-po-po-poker face, po-po-poker face.

ROMO: Meanwhile, for Buttkiss, a silent underwater survivor of this great history, the view hasn't really changed. He's been living in the same 4-foot-long, 75-gallon tank for most of his life.

Mr. GRUEBEL: I did have a few people that were a little upset that he was in such a small tank, but he's been in there for 40 years, so if I change his environment now he might not survive it so.

ROMO: The black pacu is related to the piranha and seems to hit every ugly branch on the family tree. It's a homely fish with pointy teeth, and Buttkiss, in particular, has some problems. Over the years his gills have become deformed. He's grown a hunched back, and he's developed glaucoma in his right eye. Which, considering it decreases the chances of catching his reflection in the tank, might actually be a blessing.

But ever the proud papa, Gruebel brags.

Mr. GRUEBEL: Well, you know what it is, he's my barometer. People walk in the store and they look at the fish and they go, holy crap. Look at the size of that fish. People love him.

ROMO: One of the people who loves him is 84-year-old Pat Polisciano, a spry World War II veteran who's not quite 5 feet tall.

Mr. PAT POLISCIANO: But cute. That's what the ladies in the senior center tell me. But now you have to understand what they all look like.

ROMO: Polisciano is Gruebel's longtime friend. He, too, has been a fixture at the shop for 40 years and comes in around the same time every day just to chew the fat. His favorite thing about Buttkiss - to watch him eat.

Mr. POLISCIANO: I have watched him consume thousands of goldfish. 'Cause I make it a point to remind him every time I come in: feed the beast.

ROMO: It is a spectacle when Buttkiss is fed. Like any trained pet, he knows the routine.

Mr. GRUEBEL: Watch Buttkiss's reaction now.

ROMO: As soon as he sees Gruebel walking down the aisle toward the tank, Buttkiss jams his face into the corner of the glass and starts swinging his tail back and forth like a dog.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

ROMO: Gruebel pours 20 unsuspecting goldfish into the tank and a small crowd gathers around for the show.

Mr. GRUEBEL: There he goes, there he goes.

ROMO: Buttkiss uses his mouth like a Dyson vacuum cleaner. He creates so much suction that he brings fish several inches away into his mouth. Within minutes he's slurped up and devoured 16 fish.

Mr. POLISCIANO: Now he's going to get them. Three of them there.

ROMO: This is the most excitement there's been in the store for weeks, says Gruebel, which should tell you just how slow business has been. But however tight things get, one item in Cameo Pet Shop is strictly not for sale.

So, if somebody walks in here and wanted to buy him?

Mr. GRUEBEL: I wouldn't sell him. He's a member of the family now.

ROMO: And this aquatic family member has another birthday coming up. On April 1, Buttkiss turns 44 years young.

For NPR News, I'm Vanessa Romo.

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