Asante Rogue Regional’s fish whisperer
The carp in the pond outside Smullin Education Center are among Asante’s longest-serving employees. The oldest and largest is Biggie Orange, a name I gave it just now because none of the fish living in the 35-year-old pond have names. Except Rocky, a gray koi known for swallowing rocks. And how does Mike McDonald, the keeper of the pond, know this?
“He sinks to the bottom.”
The koi pond at Smullin, plus another outside the Pediatrics Unit, wouldn’t be here if not for McDonald, a grounds maintenance technician who has worked for Asante since 1988. (Rocky wouldn’t be here either if McDonald didn’t reach into his mouth and pull out the rocks after each swallowing episode. Some fish are smarter than others.)
It was McDonald who got the idea to turn a flower bed outside of Smullin into a water feature, which soon turned into a koi pond. McDonald brought in the first five fish, one of them Biggie Orange, the largest and most animated at feeding time.
He read up on how to feed and care for koi and how to protect them from predators like herons, osprey and raccoons. When the latter are present, he covers the pond with netting. The artificial heron perched at the edge of the pond is actually a decoy to deter the large birds from diving into the pond and flying off with a fish. (McDonald and supervisor Dave Adkins, however, didn’t think they’d need to worry about human predators until they discovered a man with a fishing pole at the peds pond.)
McDonald has even performed surgery — twice — on one fish with a tumor on its head. He gave up when the tumor grew back a third time. When summer temperatures overheat the pond, McDonald cools the water with buckets of ice.
But for all his life-preserving measures, there are still losses. Once, when a heavy storm flooded the pond, he arrived at work to find one of the koi washed up on the pavement several feet away.
The fish that are lost are replaced by new babies. Some go to the pond outside of peds; others McDonald trades with local merchants in exchange for food and supplies. Then there are the goldfish, which appear mysteriously from time to time. They are undoubtedly domestic fish whose families thought they’d live a better life with the koi. Both McDonald and Adkins caution people not to dump their goldfish in the pond. One stayed, however, and is now about 8 inches long.
Over the years, McDonald has learned about the fishes’ dietary habits. In the summer, they’re fed daily and get occasional treats of fresh fruit and vegetables. “They suck the pulp from an orange slice and spit out the rind,” McDonald says.
As fall temperatures sink into the 40s, the fish will not need to be fed. Their circulation and digestion slow, McDonald says, making daily feeding harmful. On this fall day, Biggie Orange, Rocky and the other koi swim to McDonald at the edge of the pond, their mouths agape. They swallow fallen leaves, then spit them out. They’ll have to wait until spring for McDonald to return with his plastic container of food pellets.
On March 11, he and Biggie Orange will celebrate their 36th anniversary at Asante.
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