Episode 566: The Zoo Economy : Planet Money If you're a zoo or aquarium and you want a new animal, you don't use money to get it. You have to find another way. In this episode, we investigate: How many mackerel is a flock of puffins worth?

Episode 566: The Zoo Economy

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Not too long ago, the public zoo up in Calgary, Alberta, faced a unique problem. They had these lovely Asian elephants from Sri Lanka, had them on display for almost 40 years.


Swarna is kind of the odd one out. She's the aunt, and then there's the biological pair, Kamala and Rani (ph), the mother and daughter.

SMITH: Gabrielle Emanuel is a reporter for NPR who first told us about the elephants. And she says the problem was one that will be familiar to anyone who has traveled to Canada in the winter. The weather sucks, especially if you are from Sri Lanka.

EMANUEL: Calgary's up in Alberta, so it is chilly most of the year. It's snowing. It's slushy. It's gross outside.

SMITH: For years, the zoo officials in Calgary had been making the best of this elephant situation.

COLLEEN BAIRD: We've made snowmen for them. And...

EMANUEL: What do they do with the snowman?

BAIRD: Push it over and then eat them.

SMITH: Colleen Baird is the elephant curator, and as a fellow Canadian, I can say that it is always tough to accept that perhaps not every creature should live in the true north strong and free. But Colleen says eventually they had to face reality. They had to find a new home for the elephants.

EMANUEL: They needed to go somewhere where they could be outdoors all year round and have a whole herd of elephants around them. You know, guys to play with.

SMITH: Now, normally when you have something that you don't want any more, you put it up for sale, right? You put an ad on Craigslist - three elephants, good condition, no reasonable offer refused, must pick up and move yourself. But zoo animals are different from most possessions because zoos have this fundamental principle. You cannot sell your animals. You can't buy animals either. It is unethical, illegal even, to put a price tag on an elephant's head.


SMITH: I'm going to say my name first and then you say your name.


SMITH: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith.

EMANUEL: And I'm Gabrielle Emanuel. I've been reporting for NPR's national desk.

SMITH: Today on the show - why did zoos and aquariums give up one of the most useful tools a business has, the ability to buy and sell their assets? And what do you do in a world where you can't use money?


SMITH: There's a reason you can buy and sell most things on Earth because it makes everything so easy. Money lets you know who wants what, and it lets you know how badly they want it.

EMANUEL: Money lets you get rid of things you don't need and get things that you do need.

SMITH: And for hundreds of years, zoos were like any other business. They did buy and sell animals openly. Rory Browne is a historian at Boston College who studies zoos.

RORY BROWNE: Zoos bring sort of competition to have prestige animals. To get the animal's really going to draw the public in.

EMANUEL: The crowds.

BROWNE: The crowds, yes.

EMANUEL: They wanted the crowds.


SMITH: And they were willing to spend big money to get them. To understand why zoos eventually got out of the buying and selling business, we have two quick historical stories. The first one happened about 150 years ago. Browne says, back then, zoos would basically go to explorers and give them a checklist for when they next went to Africa or Asia. We want one of those gorillas, maybe a pair of those giraffes, and we are willing to pay.

EMANUEL: This is all epitomized by a German man named Carl Hagenbeck. He is a businessman who buys and sells wild animals. And he really builds this global empire.

SMITH: Hagenbeck could get you anything you wanted - polar bears, hippopotamus, wild Mongolian horses. And Hagenbeck prided himself as being this honest above-board businessman. He would price the animals based on size and vitality, even had a money-back guarantee. If your animal got sick or was not quite the color you wanted, he would refund the price. If the animal was slightly smaller than he promised, he'd give you a discount. But even back then, you could see the problem with putting a price on an animal's head.

EMANUEL: The way Carl Hagenbeck got his animals was pretty horrifying. He'd get a request in from a zoo in Europe or America and then go out on the expedition. And he'd find the family, maybe an elephant family, and actually kill the parents and then take the young, bring them back to the zoos.

SMITH: Carl Hagenbeck talks about this openly in his memoirs. He recounts bloody scenes in the jungles, and the story gets worse.

EMANUEL: In addition to going out and collecting wild beasts, he would also bring back humans. He'd bring back Eskimos, Samoans, people from Sudan, and he'd exhibit them in Europe. He put whole families on display with a little domestic scene, and he'd call it anthropology.

SMITH: Clearly, this did not give zoos the best reputation, and they knew this. They slowly tried to distance themselves from poachers and their pretty horrible techniques. But this is not an easy thing to do because you can say you aren't going to buy from the bad guys. But if there's a price, any price, on an animal's head, people will hunt those animals. People will trap those animals. That's the incentive. And you don't always know what happens out in the jungle.

So getting money completely out of the zoo business took a second disturbing event - this one more recent. Let me set the scene for you. It's the 1960s, 1970s, countries in Asia and Africa have been pushing back on this idea that guys in pith helmets could just waltz in and drag away animals for some city zoo.

EMANUEL: And then at the same time, the conservation movement is in full swing. Think Rachel Carson's the "Silent Spring" where everyone's beginning to reassess how humans and nature and wild animals all interact.

SMITH: In 1973, there was this big conference with 88 countries trying to figure out how to stop the wild animal trade, how to implement new conservation rules. And they were having trouble, as these conferences do, agreeing on anything, but while they were in session, there is this surprise news conference.

EMANUEL: One of the assistant secretaries of the Interior, Nathaniel Reed, stands up and says, federal agents in New York have discovered this huge smuggling ring.

SMITH: There was a damaged crate at JFK Airport, and an airline employee looked inside and saw something suspicious - animal skins, a lot of animal skins - and he called federal agents.

EMANUEL: And it turns out there were all these furs and pelts in there - 100,000 illegal pelts - and they're literally from all over the world - South America, Eastern Asia, South Asia - and it's leopard skins, jaguars, pumas, cheetahs. The officials look at this, they sit down, they do the calculations and they figure that one-tenth of the world's cheetah population is there in pelts.

SMITH: One-tenth. The representatives at the conference were horrified. This is what happens when you can buy and sell animals. Not long after, they signed a global set of restrictions on the trade of endangered species. In the U.S., the Endangered Species Act passes the same year. Now, even though this was prompted by trade in pelts and skins and ivory, for the zoo community, this meant they had to change the way they did business.

EMANUEL: As you buy and sell endangered species, you need a permit. And you have to prove that buying and selling these animals is somehow going to benefit the population that's out in the wild. Now, that is really hard to prove. But there's this little loophole, and that is that if you don't buy or sell them, if you don't get money involved in this equation, then you don't need a permit.

SMITH: This was specific to endangered species, but zoos started to adopt these principles for most all of their animals, aquariums too. Let's just take money out of the equation, they said. The rule became that animals should not be commodities, should not have a price, should not be paid for. So how do you get animals then to fill up all of these lovely zoos and aquariums? Well, there is one way to distribute resources without money. It's what we did before we had money, the oldest trick in the book - bartering. Gabrielle and I went to an aquarium where they have perfected it.

The New England Aquarium is out on the waterfront in Boston, and the centerpiece of the place is this amazing multi-story tank.

EMANUEL: Yeah, it's incredibly colorful. It's a Caribbean coral reef. And my favorite part was there's this giant turtle, Myrtle the Turtle, and it's just huge. And it's been there for four decades, since the aquarium opened.

SMITH: One of the advantages that aquariums have is that most of their animals there are not endangered, so they can often go out and collect species. They can occasionally use money. But aquariums try to trade and barter for most of what you see on display, and it usually starts with something small. In the case of the New England Aquarium here in Boston, their basic unit of trade is the jellyfish. The New England Aquarium breeds and barters hundreds of the little guys. The curators take us back to the vault.

And the place looks like Jacques Cousteau's living room. There's tanks everywhere, the sound of water pumps roaring and hundreds of beautiful, translucent jellyfish, hanging out like jellyfish do.

STEVE BAILEY: Your classic jelly design's a pulsating Medusa with extremely long, very diaphanous tentacles, mouth parts that look like frilly petticoats or unmentionables.

EMANUEL: Steve Bailey is the curator of fishes at the New England Aquarium.

SMITH: Every aquarium wants a jellyfish. Every aquarium wants a lot of jellyfish. And Steve's got them, which makes him, I guess, a pretty rich man in the aquarium barter game.

BAILEY: Yeah, it's horse trading, and it is money.

SMITH: But it is a very inconvenient form of money. Here's how it works. Recently, the curators had their eye on this beautiful species of fish. Oh, they wanted it bad. It is known as the lookdown fish.

BAILEY: It's a silvery schooling fish with a very unusual physiognomy. Its forehead is radically sloped, and then their eyes are perched right at the edge of that plane. And they look like they're looking down.

SMITH: They kind of look like a grumpy dinner plate, if you can picture that. Now, an aquarium in North Carolina had these guys. But North Carolina wanted more than jellyfish. North Carolina wanted snipefish, so Boston had to go find the snipefish.

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

SMITH: Boston threw in some grunts, and in the end...

BAILEY: We got lookdowns, planehead files, some burrfish.

SMITH: This seems so complicated. Was somebody in a room going, like, throw in some of those lookdowns? Like, oh, if you're going to throw in lookdowns, I'm going to have to ask for some of your grunts.

BAILEY: By the time the truck rolls off the plaza, there has probably been weeks and weeks, if not months and months, of discussion.

SMITH: If you wanted to see what the world was like before money was invented, you should go to an aquarium. Bartering takes forever. But Steve says this is what makes it so satisfying when you pull it off. When aquarium guys hang out at the bar at their meetings, they tell these incredible stories of barter success and barter failure.

EMANUEL: We asked Steve what was his favorite trade. What was the trade he was most proud of?

BAILEY: I would say that trading a school of mackerel for a flock of puffins was one of the best trades that we New England aquariumites (ph) had managed to do.

SMITH: How many puffins, how many mackerel?

BAILEY: Dan, do you remember how many puffins we got?

DAN: A good dozen.

BAILEY: Yeah, it was at least a dozen.

SMITH: And how many mackerel you said?

BAILEY: Eight hundred.

SMITH: So when you did this trade and everyone knew the puffin to mackerel ratio, did - in the United States, does that, like, set some sort of standard? Did everybody go out then and know, like, that is the official exchange rate from mackerel to puffins? Does it matter?

BAILEY: No, I think each institution could be considered a country, and you operate with your own currency, and the exchange rate is based on the institution with whom you're dealing.

SMITH: You know, I have to say, there is an easier way to do all this, which is you could have just said, you know, 600 mackerel are worth a thousand bucks and the puffins are worth a thousand bucks, and you could've just, like, done this through a bank. Like...

BAILEY: Well, money - your - is money worth more to us than the animals? You can't go out and buy puffins. So we could have been sitting on a pile of $100,000, and we still would have been puffin-less (ph).

SMITH: Steve says school kids do not come to an aquarium to see a big pile of money. They come to see the puffins, the lookdowns, the jellyfish. And that's the beauty of this system. The collection of an aquarium is an asset that can be traded and loaned, but it's also an attraction. It's also how they make their real money. Now, I should say that zoos do things a little differently. They're a little more strict about their animal trades.

EMANUEL: Yeah. So they don't like the bartering system. They don't want to set this precedent that a panda is worth a thousand turtles or whatever. Instead, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums has set up something that's kind of like a private Craigslist. It's called the Animal Exchange, and it's a place where you list what animals you need, and then you also list whatever animals you're trying to unload.

SMITH: Yeah. You don't get money or even some sort of abstract credit when you give up an animal. You get basically good karma. You get a good relationship with another zoo who might do you a favor, might give you an animal down the line. It's like one of those take a penny, leave a penny bowls but with elephants. Speak of elephants, Gabrielle, why don't you bring us up to date on what happened with those elephants in Canada?

EMANUEL: So Calgary decided it was time to give up their elephants and focus elsewhere. But these elephants, they needed a new home. So they called up the ACA, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and they drew up a list of possible zoos that might want these elephants. And then they took a road trip. They went and they visited all these zoos, their different campuses, they looked at the homes, the dorms. And together, the ACA and Calgary Zoo picked a new home.

SMITH: And the winner - the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. They had built this big, new elephant complex, a wading pool, little sand box. They had a $2 million donation to ship the elephants across the country, a whole convoy, veterinarians, the works. And of course, with all that money spent, the price for the elephants was zero - nothing.

EMANUEL: I went to visit them here in D.C. in their new home, and the elephants, they look pretty good. They're comfortable and actually kind of wrestling with one another, figuring out the social dynamic, and the crowds were pretty happy, too.


SMITH: As for Calgary, on the balance sheet they were the losers in this deal. They, of course, got no money for the elephants, but the karma system did seem to work. Calgary got major respect for putting the welfare of their elephants first, for sending them to a better place. And lo and behold, other zoos sent Calgary extra animals that they had. Calgary got a new Indian rhino and Komodo dragons - for free of course. Still on the list - lemurs. Calgary wants black-and-white lemurs. Call them if you got them. Must love snowmen.


SMITH: We always love to hear what you think of PLANET MONEY. You can email us at planetmoney@npr.org. or get in touch on Facebook or Twitter. This story first ran in 2014. It was reported by Gabrielle Emanuel and me, and it was originally produced by Jess Jiang. Today's rerun was produced by Elizabeth Kulas. And if you're looking for another show to listen to, may I suggest NPR's Ask Me Another. Ask Me Another is like trivia night but funnier. They tape in a bar in Brooklyn. I've been many times. It is a hilarious show. And you always learn something. You can listen and play along at npr.org/podcasts or on the NPR One app. I'm Robert Smith. Thanks for listening.

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