Margie Valadez, a dispatcher for RotoRooter, is used to calls from upset customers whose watches, rings or even cell phones were accidentally flushed down the toilet. Lately, though, she's been taking calls from hysterical parents asking if plumbers can rescue fish.
"I hear kids crying in the background," she said. "But there's nothing we can do. They're gone."
The hit animated film "Finding Nemo" tells the story of a clownfish plucked from the Great Barrier Reef and plopped into a claustrophobia-inducing tank at a dentist's office. After failed attempts to escape, he decides that his avenue to freedom is the toilet, believing that all drains lead to the ocean.
The RotoRooter dispatch center in Valencia has received about 70 calls from families whose children have flushed their fish. "People are really talking about it," said spokesman Jeff Garcia.
Sasha De Marino, manager of Aquarium Stock in Los Angeles, said she has received seven calls from parents whose children won't believe them about the real destination of flushed fish.
"I've had to explain to these young kids that flushing them doesn't take the fishes to where they would want to go," De Marino said.
Most flushed fish die before they reach the sewers from trauma or exposure to fresh water.
"Unless you live in Fiji, putting a saltwater fish into a toilet is sudden death," said Christina Slagar, the curator of fish husbandry at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey. The fish go into shock, and their delicate bodies are damaged by the swirling journey out of the toilet bowl.
Even if an intrepid would-be Nemo survived a trip through the home plumbing, its adventure usually would end in the sewage system, which has gases, chemicals and bacteria that can poison or asphyxiate a fish.
The sewage drains to a water treatment plant, where solids are removed and taken to a dump site or sold for use as fertilizer or compost.
"The only thing that goes to the ocean is the water that's left. That's it. Everything else is taken out," said a representative of the Los Angeles Department of Public Works.
Comedian Ellen DeGeneres, who voiced the part of a fish named Dory in the movie, said on "The Tonight Show" Tuesday that "it's a beautiful sentiment that kids are trying to free the fish, but anyway it's a bad thing."
The show produced a spoof public service announcement in which DeGeneres reassured children that their fish were happy in their tanks -- or their "pads," as she described them, likening them to a twentysomething's first apartment.
But Dan Mathews, vice president of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, agreed with the movie's message that "any fishbowl is just a hellish prison." He said he hoped that parents would "have the brains and the sense to tell their children fish are better left in their natural environment."
Paul Holthus, the executive director of the Marine Aquarium Council in Honolulu, said characterizing aquariums as prisons was hyperbolic
"I think you need to walk past some tanks where fish are being kept properly," he said, pointing out that captive fish are free from predators. "These are fish that are living longer, healthier lives than they would on a reef."