A Dozen Puffins Will Get You 800 Mackerel: Inside The Weird Economy Of Zoos | KUOW News and Information

A Dozen Puffins Will Get You 800 Mackerel: Inside The Weird Economy Of Zoos

Sep 12, 2014
Originally published on March 14, 2016 1:35 pm

Under the endangered species act, buying or selling an endangered animal requires a permit. The permits are hard to get — even for zoos and aquariums.

But there's a loophole.

"If I donate or loan an endangered species to you, I need no permit," says Kris Vehrs of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

So a barter system has sprung up among zoos and aquariums to trade animals without using money. They even do it with species that aren't endangered. But barter can be complicated.

For example: The New England Aquarium in Boston was recently in the market for some lookdown fish, and they knew of an aquarium in North Carolina that was willing to trade some.

The folks in North Carolina wanted jellyfish and snipe fish. The New England aquarium had plenty of jellyfish — but no snipe fish.

Steve Bailey, the curator of fish at the New England Aquarium, wound up making a deal to get snipe fish from an aquarium in Japan, in exchange for lumpfish. Then he sent the snipe fish and some jellyfish to North Carolina. In exchange, he finally got his lookdown fish.

Another time, Bailey says, he traded 800 mackerel for a dozen puffins. "You can't go out and buy puffins," he says. "So we could have been sitting on a pile of $100,000 and we still would have been puffinless."

Zoos do things a little differently. They don't want to say a panda is worth a thousand turtles (or whatever), so there's no direct bartering. Instead, the zoo giving up the animal gets good karma.

The Calgary Zoo recently decided that its three Sri Lankan elephants would fare better in a warmer climate. So the zoo started looking for a new home for the animals.

The animals were given a new, warmer home in Washington, D.C. The National Zoo paid for the transit, but the price for the elephants was zero.

And the karma system seems to have worked in Calgary. Another zoo gave Calgary a new Indian rhino and some Komodo dragons. Still on the list: lemurs. Calgary wants lemurs.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And let's go next to Orlando, Florida, where an unusual conference runs for the next week. People who run zoos and aquariums are gathering for their annual meeting. If you should eavesdrop on the breakout sessions and the conversations in the bars, you might hear something unusual - curators arranging animal trades. Zoos and aquariums have their own unique animal economy in which money does not trade hands. NPR's Gabrielle Emanuel, of our Planet Money team, has this report.

GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: The Calgary Zoo recently had a problem. They had these three lovely elephants from Sri Lanka. But when you think of a natural habitat for an elephant, Canada isn't what comes to mind.

COLLEEN BAIRD: We made snowmen for them and...

EMANUEL: What do they do with the snowman?

BAIRD: Push it over and then eat it.

EMANUEL: Colleen Baird takes care of the elephants. She said eventually, they had to face reality. They had to find the elephants a new home. Normally when you want to unload something, you put it on Craigslist or you have a yard sale. That is not the case for zoo animals. They are not allowed to be bought and sold. So when I asked curator Baird about this, she shuddered. She said you don't put a price tag on an elephant's head.

BAIRD: Ethically it's not the right thing to do.

EMANUEL: It goes back to the Endangered Species Act. If you want to do any transaction with an elephant or a tiger, you need a permit. And a permit is hard to get. But Kris Verhs, from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, she says there's a loophole.

KRIS VERHS: If I donate or loan endangered species to you, I need no permit.

EMANUEL: And so zoos and aquariums, they came up with this whole system to trade and move animals without ever using money. And they do this actually for non-endangered species, too. It gets really crazy and complicated. I visited the New England aquarium in Boston to see how this all happens. And the fish curator, Steve Bailey, he took me down this concrete hallway to a room that's about the size of a walk-in closet, and it's lined with tanks. Now every animal transaction has to start with something. And this aquarium, New England aquarium, they specialize in jellyfish.

STEVE BAILEY: For example, that is usually filled right up to the top with a low-bait comb jelly that we get here, but not many other institutions have access to.

EMANUEL: Bailey uses this rare jellyfish to trade for other animals the aquarium needs. So recently they really wanted this fish called the lookdown fish.

BAILEY: Its forehead is radically sloped. They look like they're looking down.

EMANUEL: An aquarium in North Carolina had some of these lookdowns. And luckily, they wanted jellyfish. But they also wanted to snipefish. So Boston had to go find some sniper fish.

BAILEY: Which came to us from Japan that were the result of a trade for lumpfish.

EMANUEL: All told, this trade took a while.

BAILEY: Weeks and weeks, if not months and months, of discussion.

EMANUEL: This is not the most convenient system. I asked Bailey, doesn't he ever wish he could just use money, buy what he wants, sell what he doesn't? But he said, no. It wouldn't have helped with his all-time favorite trade - 800 mackerel for a dozen puffins.

BAILEY: You can't go out and buy puffins. So we could have been sitting on a pile of $100,000, and we still would've been puffinless.

EMANUEL: And kids do not go to an aquarium to see a pile of money. But let's go back to the Canadian elephants. Calgary Zoo made it known that these guys needed a new home. And the Washington, D.C. - the National Zoo - they made an offer. They said, we will pay for the transportation, but of course not for the elephants. I went to visit them in their new home, and they're doing well. The Calgary elephants are getting to know the D.C. elephants. They're even roughhousing. And the visitors seemed happy, too.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Elephant.

EMANUEL: But what about Calgary? What did they get? The way this system works, they basically got good karma. They didn't get anything from Washington, D.C. Another zoo actually gave them an Indian rhino, and they got some Komodo dragons, free, of course. But still on their wish list is lemurs. Calgary wants lemurs - must love snowmen. Gabrielle Emanuel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.