A Dozen Puffins Will Get You 800 Mackerel: Inside The Weird Economy Of Zoos : Planet Money Zoos and aquariums almost never buy or sell animals. But trade is thriving.
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A Dozen Puffins Will Get You 800 Mackerel: Inside The Weird Economy Of Zoos

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

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

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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.

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