The koi whisperer: St. Charles woman operates sanctuary out of her home

By JOHN PUTERBAUGH – jputerbaugh@kcchronicle.comComments ()
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MaryEllen Malinowski administers a medicine treatment to a koi fish at her St. Charles home, where she operates a rescue operation and sanctuary devoted to caring for and educating people on the fish. (Sandy

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They call her the “Koi Whisperer” –not because she speaks to the fish, but more because she speaks for them.

This is the mission MaryEllen Malinowski finds herself pursuing these days. Having turned 2,600 square feet of her own St. Charles home into a koi fish rescue operation and sanctuary, Malinowski says caring for the fish is a round-the-clock operation. And she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m like the voice for the koi,” she says. “I represent the koi – I’m speaking on their behalf. I do what’s best for the koi.”

Malinowski describes their existence in the U.S. as often troubled. Many Americans buy koi fish – a form of freshwater carp found in waterways throughout the world – for their appealing look and the added interest they bring to decorative ponds outside homes and businesses. The problem with that, Malinowski says, is that people often don’t realize how much goes into the proper care and maintenance of the fish.

Making the situation worse, Malinowski says people often view their koi fish as disposable and easy to replace with new ones. In the U.S., koi fish commonly are sold for less than $10 in garden and pet stores. In Japan, by contrast, the koi fish are “special gems,” Malinowski said, commonly selling for thousands of dollars.

In Japan, koi fish are distinguished for their unique genealogical heritage and physical appearances that are as stunning as they are varied. The difference between these Japanese koi fish and American koi fish is similar to the difference between purebred and mixed-breed dogs, Malinowski said. While she’s enjoyed koi fish as a hobby for a long time, these difference don’t matter to her when it comes for advocating for and serving the koi.

“I can’t stop people from buying domestic koi,” she said. “I want everyone to have koi. I can’t change the world, but if I can teach one person each day …”

What she seeks to teach people – from children to adults, in person or online –is that koi fish can be rewarding and enjoyable companions. Much more than decoration for a garden pond, Malinowski wants people to view koi as animal beings unto their own.

She realizes it’s not that people don’t care about koi when they purchase them –it’s more a general lack of knowledge that can lead to problems. For instance, people don’t realize that buying koi and sticking them in a dirt- or rock-bottom pond can be setting them up for sickness or, even worse, death. Koi can live for many years in the proper environment, which includes ponds with liner bottoms and carefully monitored water.

“Because water is their air,” she says, the wrong environment can be as bad for them as it would be for a human who stayed in a small unventilated room for weeks on end, in which the air becomes dirtier increasingly difficult to breathe.

Addressing these issues is a primary function of The Koi Whisperer Sanctuary, which she is in the process of registering with the state as a nonprofit agency. Whether locally in person or throughout the world by the Internet, Malinowski helps people diagnose problems with their koi fish and, when possible, walk them through fixing those problems. When needed, Malinowski will personally travel to wherever koi are in need. From there, she may set up pond owners with the information to bring them back to health themselves or even bring them back to the sanctuary herself. This past New Year’s Day, she even traveled to Iowa, where she rescued 26 ailing koi fish.

When people don’t have the koi fish returned to them once healthy, she’ll adopt them out herself. But it all comes down to education. In a perfect world, there’d be no need for her expertise in caring for and advocating these fish. This is why she has so much hope for her Kids for Koi program, where she hopefully can make a difference that will last long beyond her years.


To find out more about MaryEllen Malinowski’s mission and operation, visit


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