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

Zuritsky, to his credit, is blissfully aware of this compulsion, and he makes few apologies for the breadth of his passion, or the pleasure it gives him. He realizes how weird it sounds to most people. “I guess part of me loves to search,” he says. “All collectors can relate to that impulse. If you’re not a collector, you can’t imagine why anybody would do that. But the searching and finding — there’s fun in the search, but then there’s supreme pleasure in the finding.”

For Zuritsky, that search began in the late 1960s. He had always been a nature lover, always kept pets, and one day, visiting Martin’s Aquarium, a pet shop in Jenkintown, he saw a shallow pond the owner had built in the corner. Zuritsky had long maintained a saltwater aquarium with tropical fish, but he’d never seen anything like the fish in that pond. “I was sold,” he says. The beauty thing.

At the time, about six people in this country knew anything about koi. So Zuritsky, in the great tradition of American do-it-yourselfers, made shit up as he went along. He bought a steel tank, attached a simple aquarium filtration system, and hoped for the best. Soon enough, a pattern developed. Zuritsky would buy koi, drop them in his little pond, and watch them die. Over and over it happened. Buy, drop, die. Buy, drop, die. “I thought I was a masochist,” he says.

It’s a common experience. Though koi lovers often talk about how “hardy” the fish are, mostly because under the right circumstances they can survive under ice during winter, and sometimes live to be as old as 70, such talk seems ridiculous to anyone who spends more than five minutes researching koi. They are sensitive creatures, vulnerable to a whole spectrum of woes, from stress to disease to parasites. Almost every book about koi has an index of awesomely gruesome-sounding ailments: hole-in-the-body disease, kidney bloat, pop-eye. There is even a disorder called body slime fungus.

Zuritsky’s days as a prolific koi killer came to an end in the mid-1970s, after he realized that a nascent koi industry was emerging in California, where stores, clubs, and even a magazine, KOI USA, had popped up. To Zuritsky, the discovery of a whole culture of like-minded koi nuts was hitting the lottery. Literally: “That was like manna from heaven, gold,” he says. He got his hands on everything he could find about koi, about water quality, about fish health and filters. He built a pond in front of his house in Gulph Mills, and was, finally, able to keep koi alive. “Having fish die is heartbreaking,” he says.

Once he cleared the viability hurdle, Zuritsky was off. He was constantly upgrading, toiling, tinkering, all in the hope of doing things better, growing bigger fish. He started buying more and better koi. He helped found the Mid-Atlantic Koi Club, so koi enthusiasts up and down the East Coast could share knowledge. “We started to have shows,” he says, “and then my competitive juices really got flowing.”