Passions: The World According to Carp

Philadelphia parking magnate Joe Zuritsky has a little obsession he’s devoted millions of hours and piles of cash to: breeding the perfect koi

To understand how odd it is that Zuritsky could be so manic about koi, one needs to understand how odd it is that anybody would be manic about koi. The fish is nothing but a common, bottom-feeding carp with a nice paint job, a creature that — at least in its conventional guise — is considered a nuisance: dumb, voracious, and uglier than a subway-stop hooker.

It was the Japanese who saw the promise of beauty in such piscine banality. For centuries, farmers in the Niigata Prefecture utilized carp for food, raising them in small reservoirs carved into the region’s steep hillsides. But in the mid-1800s, they began to notice mutations among their dun-colored stocks: carp with blue scales up their backs, carp with Pollock-esque splashes of red and black. Over time, as the farms bred the mutant fish with one another, they managed to create aquaculture’s version of a cash crop: an exotic-looking carp.

Koi breeders have been messing with Mother Nature ever since. Though the most popular variety is the traditional kohaku — a white-bodied fish with steps of tomato-red patterns down its body — there are now myriad other types: koi with black bodies and red spots; koi with red bodies and black spots; koi with white bodies flecked with black and splashed with red spots (which are given a different name from koi that have black bodies flecked with white, and red spots — even though the two varieties look exactly the same). There are blue koi and yellow koi.

“A really good one in any of the varieties, they’re just beautiful,” says Zuritsky.

This is a common refrain among enthusiasts, repeated so often and so intently that it’s hard not to wonder what sort of Kool-Aid they pass out at koi club meetings. Even those merely associated with koi people aren’t immune to the allure. When Joe Zuritsky’s family members are asked why he’s so captivated by the fish, they offer these variously nuanced takes:

“I really think he enjoys beauty,” says wife Renée.

Echoes daughter Anna Boni: “I think he’s attracted to beauty.”

As daughter Elisa sees it, “I think it’s the beauty.”

Apparently, it’s the beauty.

It’s true that Zuritsky’s appreciation for koi can be infectious and rather alarming. On a weekday winter afternoon, he walks around the Parkway Corp. headquarters, located above a parking garage (of course) on North Broad Street, bucket in hand. The common space is dominated by a giant atrium with palm trees, waterfalls, and two ponds filled with dozens of koi. As he strolls around the edges of the pools, Zuritsky tosses small pellets into the water. The fish swarm, boiling up to grab the feed. As they rise to the surface, a transformation takes hold; Zuritsky instantly goes from hard-nosed Philly businessman to the world’s tannest seven-year-old, offering animated, rapid-fire descriptions of his fish. “Look at this one,” he says gleefully. “Look at that, that kohaku. That one’s called a doitz, with no scales. That variety came in from Germany. Here, here, here. Look.”

For all the yapping about koi splendor, though, it’s hard for anyone not totally in the tank to recognize that Zuritsky’s Branch Davidian level of devotion is about more than the visual pleasures offered up by a dim-witted pet. Koi, on some level, are not so different from a decent cheeseburger or a ’76 Plymouth Volare. You can’t find them in nature; they are manufactured, created to the specifications of a precise aesthetic, molded in the context of a fickle culture. As pretty as they may be, their value will always be measured on a platonic scale, against some nebulous idea of a perfectly unattainable specimen. And just as it was from the conquistadors down to every crackpot auditioner for American Idol, it’s the pursuit, not the accomplishment, that’s at the heart of the mania.