Bubba, a huge, personable fish who three years ago became a hero to cancer patients after undergoing surgery and chemotherapy to get rid of a malignant tumor, died Tuesday at Shedd Aquarium.
The 154-pound Queensland grouper, estimated to be about 24 years old, had an odd and extraordinary life that many—including children suffering from cancer—have found inspiring.
Bubba showed up at the Shedd in 1987 as an abandoned pet that someone left in a cooler on the aquarium's doorstep. At the time, Bubba was female. Groupers and some other fish may change gender as they mature based on social influences and other factors, and in the mid-1990s, as Bubba grew to become one of the biggest fish at the Shedd, he made the transition from female to male.
"He was a good guy," an obviously disheartened George Parsons said Wednesday of Bubba's death. Now the director of the Shedd's fish department, Parsons, 44, was a volunteer at the aquarium when Bubba arrived.
"It's a real blow to lose him like this," Parsons said. "I am 6-foot-4 and weigh 240 pounds, and I just connected with him as being a big guy, too.
"But it was more than that. Bubba really had charisma. He was just happy to stay by the window of his tank and watch people. He was as interested in them as they were in him."
That interest became evident in 2003 when keepers became worried about a growth that had appeared on Bubba's head above his eyes. It was diagnosed as connective tissue cancer, and the fish was taken from his public pool in the No. 2 Gallery, since torn out and replaced by the Amazon Rising exhibit.
Bubba was placed in a windowless reserve tank while the veterinary staff tried to figure out what course of treatment they could use to treat the cancer.
"As soon as we put him in that tank, he stopped eating," Parsons said. "After a few days, we put him in a reserve pool with a window, and he started eating again, right away. He just wanted a room with a view so he could see what was going on."
The Shedd brought in experts in veterinary oncology and surgery to cut the tumor from Bubba's forehead, then to administer a course of chemotherapy treatment, believed to be a first in the annals of fish husbandry.
Bubba recovered and later that year was placed in a 400,000-gallon shark tank for the opening of the Shedd's $47 million Wild Reef exhibit. He became an instant star with the public once the cancer story was publicized.
"We've always had visitors asking how to find Bubba, the fish who beat cancer," Parsons said, "and he was usually right there, right next to the windows. People adored him. I think he inspired them."
The oncology unit at Hope Children's Hospital in Oak Lawn wanted to build a fish aquarium in its treatment unit in Bubba's honor, so the Shedd staff helped them put it together. It became a focal point for children being treated for cancer. The kids, Parsons said, made a tile plaque honoring Bubba, now installed in a wall of their ward.
"Every once in a while for the last three yearswe have been getting phone calls from kids with cancer or from their parents, wondering how he is doing. It's going to be tough now, if I have to tell them he's no longer with us," Parsons said.
Bubba's demise was quick. Keepers arriving Tuesday morning called Parsons in when they noticed the big grouper was swimming erratically. They transferred him to a medical treatment pool, but over the next five hours, Bubba's condition worsened until he died early in the afternoon.
"His physical condition had become acute recently without us noticing it," Parsons said. "It's the scenario of the survival of the fittest. Wild animals have a tendency to hide all their illnesses, so that they don't become vulnerable to predators. They do the same in the aquarium, where we often don't see that they're ill until it's too late."
A necropsy, or animal autopsy, performed by vets showed Bubba may have had a cancerous growth in the testicles, but more detailed results from the tests probably won't be available for a few weeks.
The grouper was just reaching his senior years, as the species has a life expectancy of 25 to 60 years, Parsons said. He was about average in size, though in the wild, groupers have been known to grow as large as 600 pounds.
Bubba leaves a valuable legacy, said Bill Van Bonn, who as veterinarian and the Shedd's senior director of animal health, oversaw Bubba's cancer treatment and tried to save him Tuesday.
"Bubba has tremendously helped the veterinary community learn much about treating cancer in fish," Van Bonn said in a written statement. "While he will truly be missed, the knowledge gained from Bubba's story of survival continues to benefit the veterinary science community."
I should have checked there first. The local paper usually has a better story.