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Caregiver to the Carp

Pets: The rescue of a koi set free by winter rains was just one example of the devotion Barbara Johnson--'the Fish Lady'--lavishes on the decorative creatures.

April 17, 2001|JOHN L. MITCHELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A sign at Mulholland and Beverly Glen heralds an unusual fish tale--about the one that got away.

"Found: stray fish in rainstorm runoff."

The fish that got away was the only surviving koi of about a dozen that washed down Benedict Canyon in the rains in February and landed on a woman's front lawn. It eventually landed in the hands of Barbara Johnson, a woman aptly known as "the Fish Lady."

"We managed to rescue two, but only one survived," lamented Johnson, a fish pond specialist who cares for the fish of the rich and famous.

The homeowner called her and Johnson rushed to the scene, scooped up the castaway koi and raced it to a tank in her Van Nuys warehouse, where she nursed it back to health.

The koi, which sports distinctive red, white and black markings, is valued at about $1,000 and weighs about 3 pounds.

"But we don't look at them in terms of weight," Johnson said. "It makes them appear like a food item."

Instead, Johnson likes to look at her carp in terms of their personalities. Her orphan koi has recuperated.

"It's a good fish," Johnson said. "She had a few bruises when she arrived, but they have healed. We put her in a separate tank with a male and she is quite happy. Kois are very social and they do better if they have someone to be with them, like a nurse fish."

Johnson's sign drew immediate attention from passersby used to seeing fliers bemoaning the loss of dogs or cats. Some offered to take the fish off her hands. One caller swore it was the fish she sold to someone a few years back. Another said she had seen it at a home in Marina del Rey.

But Johnson insists on proof of ownership before handing the fish over.

"A lot of people keep pictures, like of their dogs, cats or children," she said. "I want to see a picture. I have pictures of my fish. You never know what may happen. I can identify my fish in an instant. You show off like a proud parent."

And that's no easy feat.

"Fifty-six of my own children," she called them.

Johnson said she began collecting fish to relieve the stress of working in the entertainment industry as an assistant casting director. But what started out as a hobby became a full-time job.

"It was great therapy," she said. "It is very relaxing to listen to water and watch fish. As a result, I left the film industry to take care of the fish of many of those who work in the film industry. Before I knew it, it was a full-time job."

She said she began calling her company "the Fish Lady," because that is what she called herself when she showed up at the estates of many of her clients to maintain their fish ponds.

"She lives through the fish," said filmmaker Pen Densham, who brought his fascination with koi to Johnson more than a decade ago. "If you collected marbles as a kid, the glass had a magic to them. You look at the back of these fish and you see ancient rivers, and butterflies with giant lacy wings."

Another client, artist Vicky Daniel, keeps 18 koi in a large pond.

"They are just amazing in that they get so huge and they live a long time," she said. "I have one we call the Great Wolinsky. It floats on its back and does tricks."

Johnson flew another koi to Atlanta for surgery on a tumor. "She's a big yellow banana fish," she said. "We call her Chiquita. They did major surgery on her and today she's fine. She is a delight, the first one to come to eat."

Strange perhaps, but not in the world of koi, where some rare and exotic fish can fetch up to $100,000. Their owners give them names and teach them to do tricks and eat out of their hands.

"It's like a good racehorse," Johnson said. "It is a hobby that commands a lot of attention. Some koi are absolutely extraordinary to see. I swim with my koi. People swim in lakes and don't know the fish. I know mine."

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