Last week, while interviewing goldsmith Gary Gilmore for the San Diego People Project, I couldn’t help but be distracted by the colorful fish swimming behind him in his office.

At the end of our chat, I had to ask him, “Where’d you get the fish, Gary?”

“Pet Kingdom,” he told me, noting that he always supports mom-and-pop shops before going to a big corporation.

So I tracked down Ron Soucy, who is the “fish specialist” of the Sports Arena Boulevard-store. Soucy’s been breeding fish since his young days growing up in Chula Vista.

I chatted with Soucy about the rare fish he’s bred over the years and what life in the pet store is like. After our interview, I asked him a series of questions that will lead me to the next installation in the series.

Name: Ron Soucy

Age: 48

Occupation: Pet store manager

Part of town: Chula Vista

OK, so here, you are the fish specialist?

Yep, I run the freshwater department here.

What does it mean to be a fish specialist?

Just knowing what to order. There’s probably 14,000 species of fish on this planet you could order for a pet store these days. Knowing which one to order and which ones people are interested in — and keeping it competitive just like any other business. It’s a lot of fun. It’s kind of been my hobby for 20 some odd years.

How did fish become your hobby?

When I was a kid, I was into ducks and chickens and all of that stuff. One of my friends gave me one of those little Siamese fighting fish — a beta in a bowl.

I thought it was kind of boring and then someone showed me if you hold a mirror up to the males, they flare out their gills and their fins. I thought, “Ooh, that was neat.”

Next thing you know, I was hitting all the garage sales, trying to find little fish tanks, and I bought a little female and started breeding those guys. That was in about fifth or sixth grade. And I never stopped. I’ve probably bred 500 or 600 breeds of fish by now. I did it for a living for a while.

Where did you do that?

Down in Chula Vista, I had a warehouse. I had a warehouse in National City for a while and then I built a big building on the back of my house. I had 313 tanks back there for about 16 years — breeding all kinds of different African fish and South American fish, all kinds of stuff.

Why’d you stop doing that?

It got more and more competitive and electricity got more and more expensive and just got to the point where, you know, my electricity bill was well over $1,000 per month. In the summertime, sales were getting slow and it just — ahh, it was just trying to figure out, after I pay all these electric bills and spend all this money, is it really worth it to me?

And, honestly, it got to the point where every single fish I could find that was breedable, I had already bred. The challenge was gone. I started getting more into exotic reptiles and started going towards more turtles and tortoises.

What is it about fish that you enjoy?

I just like the challenge of breeding them. I think that’s why I never have been much of a saltwater guy. Most saltwater fish are just a pretty fish to look at. But I like to find exotic, rare stuff that not too many people have, or that are hard to come by, and try to breed them.

There’s a couple species of fish out there who I was the first person to ever breed them in captivity, so that’s always nice.

Like what?

There’s a fish from Lake Tanganyika (in Africa) called a Benthochromis Tricoti. I was one of the first people to breed it and it just so happened — this was back in about 1990 — I had borrowed my grandfather’s video camera to video my fish room, ’cause I was going to go be a speaker at a fish club in Colorado. So, I’m walking around my fish room with a video camera in my hands and these fish just happened to breed while I was standing there.

So, I got the whole thing on video, so I could prove to everybody that yes, I did breed them and here’s the video to prove it. So that was kinda cool.

While I was standing out on the floor, I heard one of your customer service people asking a customer, “Do you need any help,” and they said “No, we’re just having fun.” Do you experience that a lot here?

Yeah, but we don’t mind that. A place like this, most people come here and say they like it better than the zoo. We hear that all the time — every day.

What are the challenges of having Petco right there (a Petco store is within blocks of Pet Kingdom)?

They’re like the Hyundai dealer. We’re like the Ferrari dealer. No comparison.

Stores like that, they typically just have the same fish in every single store you walk into, where, us, we’ve got stuff no one’s seen before.

— Interview conducted and edited by SAM HODGSON

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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