So far, Fur, Feathers & Fins has covered fur and feathers. But what about fins? What does a farm animal sanctuary have to do with fish? It may surprise you to learn that West Place is home to koi, who, like our furred and feathered residents, were rescued from a case of animal cruelty.
If you’ve ever visited West Place, you know that the pond is the heart and soul of our sanctuary. It is a vital source of water for our ducks, geese, and swans. The 80,000-gallon pond operates year-round, ensuring our birds have daily access so they can remain waterproof and insulated in colder weather. The pond provides social enrichment for our rescue animals, and when they “gather around the watering hole” we get to witness the relationship dynamics between a variety of breeds and species.
The pond is also a permanent home to half a dozen turtles and more than 200 Japanese koi! Keeping all of our animals safe, healthy, and happy is our top priority and our fish are no exception. The koi rely on the man-made structure for sustenance and protection from predators. Although their vibrant colors are what make koi so popular and recognizable, it also puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to predators. Along with decoys and other deterrents above the surface, the pond includes a system of underwater caves for our koi to explore and retreat to should a heron or osprey decide to make a surprise visit. Foxes, raccoons, mink, and other ground-dwelling predators can also pose a threat to koi ponds. Even the water itself is an opaque green color to prevent aerial predators from spying the koi from above. This environment also provides a respite from the summer heat, since koi are susceptible to sunburn.
Before we detail how these colorful fish came to West Place, let’s talk about what koi actually are. No, they are not super-sized goldfish. Japanese koi are a domesticated version of carp and there are more than 100 different varieties. In fact, the word “koi” actually means “carp” in Japanese. They were originally brought to Japan from China as a source of food, but Japanese rice farmers began breeding koi for their beauty and aesthetic appeal in the early 19th century. In many cultures, koi are symbols of perseverance, endurance, strength, and individualism, though the colors of each variety can carry different connotations. For example, fish that are gold represent wealth and prosperity while blue koi are believed to bring serenity.
Japanese koi can grow up to three feet in length, and the largest ever recorded was four feet long and 91 pounds! Thankfully, the koi at West Place are not quite that large or we would need a bigger pond. They are omnivorous, feasting on a mix of aquatic plants, insects, and algae at all water depths. They have also been known to eat lettuce and even watermelon (Jack and Diane may have some competition). Our pond provides a natural diet for our fish, though we do give them occasional treats. Koi are known to be very intelligent and can be trained to eat out of your hand. Our executive director has even been able to call them to the surface!
Koi typically live between 30 and 50 years, depending on their genetics, their environment, and their level of care. The oldest known koi, Hanako, actually lived to be 226! He was born in 1751 and lived until 1977. Similar to a tree, a koi’s scales produce growth rings, which can be used to determine their age. Yes, koi are fascinating fish and the group that arrived at West Place in 2016 had an improbable journey that makes them even more impressive.
There is a lucrative koi breeding industry, where show-quality fish are known to sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Sadly, this invites neglectful and unqualified characters looking to make a quick buck and who are not prepared to put in the time and effort necessary to care for living beings. The koi of West Place were unfortunate victims of animal cruelty the likes of which this region had never seen before or since. Yes, we’re talking about the Westport, MA, case of 2016 -- the largest case of animal cruelty in New England’s history.
If you’ve been following West Place, you know then many of our wonderful animals came from Westport. Our goats (Maggie and Sadie), two of our sheep (Colby and Shaw), and four of our five peacocks were all rescued from the situation that was called “hell on Earth” by the ASPCA and other response partners. We didn’t expect to find fish among the 1,000-plus animals suffering on the tenant farm two towns over. But as an official response partner of the ASPCA, West Place was there to help in any way we could and we rescued dozens of animals from the Westport case, including 39 Japanese koi.
The majority of the koi were only about a year old. Like so many other animals throughout the years, they were loaded into the back of our executive director’s SUV and brought to the sanctuary (this was before West Place had its own truck). The koi were brought to the pond where they immediately began enjoying their new-found space and second chance at life. Nobody can say for sure what their fate might have been had they not been seized from that terrible situation in Westport, but 5 years later the koi are thriving -- and multiplying!
Every summer, West Place rehabilitates injured and orphaned wildlife and releases them back to their natural habitats. Many of these temporary residents are birds and part of the “soft release” program is introducing them to the pond. During a particularly busy baby wildlife season a few years back, our beloved pond took a beating. With so many animals enjoying many hours on the water, the pond was in need of a good cleaning. We drained the pond, carefully removing every fish and turtle inhabitant and relocating them to temporary holding tanks while we scrubbed the pond liner. We hoped to find all 39 koi from the Westport rescue, but weren’t quite sure how many would have actually survived. To our astonishment, we removed 39 koi plus about 160 new additions! The koi were making the most of their new lease on life.
Today, we see our koi friends near the surface nibbling on food or occasionally jumping enthusiastically. We recently introduced several aquatic plants for our pond animals and the waterfowl, turtles, and koi are all enjoying the new food. Our koi rely on humans to maintain plant life, provide healthy bacteria, and balance the pH and ammonia levels, but otherwise have everything they need at their “fin”ger tips. And despite the growth and many changes to West Place over the years, our executive director can still walk down to the pond on a quiet day and call the koi to the surface to say hello.
You can sponsor the West Place koi for just $15/month. Your sponsorship covers the costs associated with maintaining their environment and food sources, and provides budget relief that allows us to continue rescuing animals in need.