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 his family, it soon became clear that Zuritsky’s zeal had moved well beyond the bounds of hobbies normally associated with suburban dads. Other fathers, his kids noticed, didn’t spent hours after dinner donning waders, walking around in a pond. Nor did they go on late-night sorties to the airport, where Zuritsky would pick up fish from California, Japan and Hawaii, packed in Styrofoam packages plastered with LIVE FISH stickers.

By the time Zuritsky’s kids were teenagers, their home had become a refuge, daycare and hospice for koi. In the basement and garage, huge tubs would be filled with baby koi, sick koi, quarantined koi. Once, when she was 16, recalls Elisa Zuritsky, some of her father’s koi developed a fungus, and he needed to treat them with antibiotics. Elisa was enlisted to hold the fish down while Joe injected them. “We had syringes everywhere,” says Elisa, a former Sex and the City writer. “I’m sure the trash people didn’t know what was going on.”

The search for bigger, more beautiful koi led Joe Zuritsky to take buying trips to California, and then to Japan, the source of the world’s best koi, and the only place where he could find people more nut-bar over the fish than he was. For years, the Japanese protocols regarding the quality and value of koi — the rules on color, skin patterns and size — had seemed completely arbitrary to Zuritsky, as they do to most people (even most koi people). But those trips began an evolution. He started to gain a true appreciation of the Japanese aesthetic, not just with koi, but with everything. Zuritsky and his wife began collecting Japanese furniture and artwork. He amassed Japanese swords. He grew different types of bamboo. He began studying Japanese gardens. “The Japanese are perfectionists, seekers of perfection,” he says. “Ultimately, I began to understand it and absorb that. Then their standards made all the sense in the world to me, and they became part of me.”

Becoming a Japanese-style breeder, at least in Zuritsky’s koi-addled brain, seemed like a natural step. He had started out simply interested in how koi looked. Then he’d wanted to see how his fish compared to others. Now he wanted to see if he could take good fish and make something interesting. If he used his knowledge of Japanese koi farms and breeding methods, why couldn’t he replicate their results? How hard could it be? “I had,” he admits today, “no idea what I was getting myself into.”