UC Davis Veterinarians Rescue Koi from California Wildfires

Veterinary students hold koi fish in net
UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine students transport rescued koi fish into tanks at the UC Davis Center for Aquatic Biology and Aquaculture.

***CBS13 Coverage of this story***

During times of crisis involving animals, Dr. John Madigan—director of the UC Davis Veterinary Emergency Response Team (VERT)—is usually busy rescuing horses or other livestock with his team. During the current California wildfires, however, VERT has added an unexpected species to its long list of saved animals – koi fish.

While performing search and rescue operations throughout Sonoma County over the past week, VERT came across a privately owned koi pond that had to be abandoned in the direness of the moment. As many residents in the area barely got out with their lives, there was no time to save animals that could not be rounded up quickly.

Dr. Madigan, Dr. Monica Aleman and the veterinary students accompanying them were determined to save these fish that were dying in their ponds, now contaminated with ash and lacking oxygen due to power loss in the area. Being an equine veterinarian, Dr. Madigan was unfamiliar with the best ways to bring these fish to safety, but knew the veterinary school had aquatic specialists. Knowing these type of situations would arise during the fire crisis, the school established an email listserv to quickly reach others with questions. One email from Dr. Madigan about the koi quickly put him in touch with Dr. Esteban Soto, a fish veterinarian with the school, and VERT member Dr. Eric Davis, who had experience transporting fish in an emergency.

The team secured a horse water trough in the back of Madigan’s pickup truck and carefully raked the pond to extract the fish. Concerned about lack of oxygen for the two-hour trip back to campus, the team utilized a tire pump air compressor. Running a cord through the back window, they plugged the compressor into the truck’s auxiliary power ports. A tube from the compressor was placed into the water to provide airflow. Finally, plywood was tied down over the top of the trough to keep the fish and water from getting out.

The hastily created transport system worked like a charm. VERT arrived at the UC Davis Center for Aquatic Biology and Aquaculture (CABA) with all 10 koi alive. The koi immediately thrived once in large tanks with plenty of oxygen and food thanks to the assistance of CABA Director Linda Deanovic.

Back in the fire zone, word spread that UC Davis was able to rescue koi, and other owners asked VERT to visit their properties to see if their fish were still alive. The next day, VERT rescued six more koi. On the third day, 14 fish, with more to follow. Some of the koi rescued are more than 30 years old.

Once the koi are back on campus, they are examined by Dr. Soto, who regularly treats koi as a faculty member with the UC Davis veterinary hospital’s Aquatic Animal Health (AAH) unit, a division of the Companion Exotic Animal Medicine and Surgery Service. During the next couple of weeks, the recently relocated koi will be allowed to acclimatize to the new systems in CABA. Once the fish are acclimatized (stress induced from the fires, poor water quality and transportation are usually risk factors for opportunistic infections), a complete physical examination under anesthesia will be performed by AAH. The exam includes collection and analysis of gill clips and skin scrapes, as well as blood collection and analysis to evaluate overall health of the animals. If required at any time, the koi will be treated individually and monitored until ready to return home.

To date, UC Davis has taken in two llamas, 10 horses, 19 cats, and 30 koi.

“When all this started, who would’ve thought that the largest group of animals we treated from the fires would’ve been fish,” stated Dr. Madigan.

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See a video of the koi rescue.