People love to show off their animals. That’s why we have show horses, show dogs and show cats. Even rat owners compete at shows to see who has the pet rodent with the sleekest body and the shapeliest tail.

But would you believe show shrimp?

Believe it.

Tiny, colorful freshwater shrimp are developing a following among people who treat them as pets, not appetizers.

The most passionate participants read glossy magazines full of shrimp glamour shots. They breed, buy and sell coveted varieties that can cost thousands of dollars each. And they ship their inch-long crustaceans around the world to international competitions to see who has the best shrimp in show.

Ornamental shrimp are already big in Europe and Asia. Now, they’re catching on in the United States, thanks to people like Joe Theisen.

The Victoria resident used to make a living as a horse breeder and trainer. Now he’s a shrimp breeder, with one of the largest collections of award-winning shrimp in the state.

“I’m just fascinated by them,” he said.

Theisen’s love affair with shrimp started just over two years ago, when he was at a Petco looking for a pet he could keep in his condo.

“I saw this lonely cherry shrimp in a tank,” he said.

That’s an entry-level, red-hued “starter shrimp” which sells for a few dollars, lives for a couple of years, and only grows to be about an inch long.

At first he thought, “Who would ever buy this creature that no one would see?” Still, he brought a handful of the ornamental shrimp home.

That handful grew to a collection of more than 55 tanks filled with 1,000 multicolored shrimp with exotic breed names like Blue Steel, Green Jade, Bloody Mary and Black Panda.

“I’m in the hoarding phase,” he said. “I love shrimp.”

Not everyone understands his horse-to-shrimp conversion.

When his horse-breeding colleagues learned he was getting into shrimp, “Everyone was saying, ‘Oh, like cocktail shrimp?’ ”

He eventually dropped horses completely for shrimp and other aquatic life, becoming a part owner and head shrimper at New Wave Aquaria in Plymouth.

Just a year into the hobby, he found himself paying $20,000 to a breeder for 20 exotic shrimp. He made money on the deal. Those shrimp bred every 30 days, and Theisen sold their offspring for $100 each at his online business, Joe’s Shrimp Shack. Theisen said he’s shipped shrimp to collectors in every state in the country as well as Europe and Venezuela.

He also started showing off new varieties of shrimp he bred, competing in the International Shrimp Contest USA. Competitors fly with — or mail in — their top shrimp. (They can live several days in a plastic bag filled with water.)

Judges equipped with magnifying glasses peer into the 2½-gallon tanks allotted to each entry, critiquing them for size, color intensity, attractiveness of body patterns, legs and antennae quality.

In 2017, Theisen won in one of the most competitive categories (Neocaridina All Colors) with a blackberry-colored shrimp he bred. Now he’s the lead organizer of the contest.

If a shrimp doesn’t perform well, it doesn’t get flushed.

“I don’t believe in wasting a life form,” he said.

The next little thing

Compared with pet shrimp hotbeds like Germany and Taiwan, shrimp are just starting to become big in the United States, according to Chris “Shrimp King” Lukhaup, an international shrimp guru from Germany.

Lukhaup used to make his living as a bass guitarist touring with a death metal band called “Atrocity.” Now he travels the world judging shrimp contests, promoting an aquarium company and taking photographs for his German/English-language shrimp magazine, “Breeders ’n’ Keepers.” (Its motto: “Shrimply the best!”)

He also goes on expeditions searching for undiscovered freshwater invertebrates. He once identified a new species of crayfish that he named Cherax snowden after the NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

Lukhaup describes ornamental shrimp as “beautiful,” “fragile” and “very peaceful.”

They’re also profitable. Lukhaup said he paid for his house with the money he made breeding and selling pet shrimp.

Theisen would add convenient. They can thrive in a small, breadbox-sized “nano tanks.” Young shrimp, only about the size of a fingernail clipping, are easy to clean up after because their “bioload” (waste) is small.

“This is really easy for college kids,” Theisen said.

The increased popularity of shrimp has gone hand-in-hand with a growing interest in the U.S. in aquascaping. That’s a style of aquarium that involves creating lush arrangements of rocks, branches and living underwater plants in an aesthetically pleasing design. Shrimp are a good fit with aquascaping because they eat algae and help keep the tanks clean.

In his new career, Theisen sometimes creates big tank aquascapes for customers. But Tyler Volk, a St. Paul aquarium keeper who started the MN Planted Tank Aquatics Facebook page, describes Theisen as “a shrimp-first guy.” His passion is to try to get more people into the little crustaceans.

“I found excitement and joy in it,” Theisen said. “I want to get more people into the hobby.”

 

All Things Aquarium
What: The Minnesota Aquarium Society’s Aquarium Expo 2019, a family-friendly event to help you grow or get started in the hobby. More than 100 display tanks, hourly presentations and demos will be featured.
When: 9 a.m.-7 p.m., March 23.
Where: Augsburg College Hagfors Center, 700 21st Av. S., Mpls.
Cost: Free.
For more info: See aquarium.mn/2019