"Witness the white bear of the poles, and the white shark of the tropics; what but their smooth, flaky whiteness makes them the transcendent horrors they are? That ghastly whiteness it is which imparts such an abhorrent mildness, even more loathsome than terrific, to the dumb gloating of their aspect. So that not the fierce-fanged tiger in his heraldic coat can so stagger courage as the white-shrouded bear or shark."
- Herman Melville, Moby Dick
The fish connoisseurs that Emily Voigt met while researching The Dragon Behind the Glass want Asian arowanas – but not just any Asian arowana. They wax eloquently about the shape of the fins and the length of the barbels, but mostly they talk about color. Some speak of the illustrious “Super Red” (red being a lucky color in many East Asian cultures), others of luxuriant gold. The highest selling fish of all was a coveted albino, lurking in a wall-sized tank in a darkened room.
Fish aren’t the only group of animals in which there is a high demand for unusually-colored animals. Voigt mentions a collector who had an entire private zoo of only white animals. Many popular pet reptiles and amphibians and birds are bred for unique color morphs. The wild budgerigar – the little Australian psittacine that is often referred to as a parakeet or budgie – is yellow/green. Visit a pet store and you’ll encounter cloud white and sky blue, among other colors. Likewise, I went herping a few years ago with a friend in Florida. When he spotted and caught a snake off the trail, I had a hard time recognizing it as a corn snake – perhaps the most commonly kept snake in the United States. I had a hard time reconciling the pallet of color morphs that I saw in pet stores and zoo education departments with the burnt orange serpent, far less gaudy but much for appealing (in my eyes), that my friend held in this hands.
White tigers, of course, are celebrities among zoo animals, and though they seem to be fading out of AZA collections, they still have a tremendous amount of popular support in the private sector (with some apologists even insisting that they are a separate subspecies). White alligators have become very popular in recent years, popping up in aquariums and zoos around the country; the first one I ever saw was a rental, on display at one major zoo as a summer attraction. White rheas and white deer are fairly common. There are white lions in a handful of zoos (though these look nowhere near as striking as white tigers); as far as I know, none of the famous white “spirit bears” of Canada’s coastal rainforests are on display anywhere.
Excluded from the list are black jaguars and black leopards, which do occur in the wild, in some parts of the species’ range being fairly common. Even so, these black cats have a much stronger pull on the imagination of our visitors than the spotted ones; guests will stare at a black panther for minutes on end, maybe only passing a glance at a spotted exhibit-mate. In contrast, many unusual color morphs – white tigers and white alligators, for example – are the descendants of perhaps a single mutant animal born in the wild. These normally would not survive, but by being brought into captivity, were propagated (sometimes incestuously) to produce similar-looking offspring. Other color morphs, like the endless array of patterned python, were the result of generations of selective breeding, with new varieties coming out every year.
Color morphs are often the result of selective breeding, which, in the case of zoo and aquarium animals, I tend to disapprove of. Partially because I worry about the prospect of inbreeding and loss of genetic diversity. Mostly because I like the idea of keeping the captive stock as close as possible to the wild ancestor. Voigt, upon seeing selectively-bred Asian arowanas, felt dubious about their prospects for survival if they were ever to be used for reintroduction efforts. Selective breeding hadn’t just changed their color – it had changed their nature.
Of course, you could say that selectively breeding captive animals so that they can’t survive in the wild could also be an advantage, thereby reducing the likelihood of a species escaping and becoming an invasive pest. In the pet trade, also (especially in the reptile trade, which has a history of smuggling issues), color morphs can serve as proof that an animal was captive-produced and not taken illegally from the wild.
Reputable zoos try to present animals to the public as they are, not as a vision of what the public might find to be more visually impressive. This is doubly true if such selective breeding results in inbreeding or other genetic problems. We should strive to present the animal as an animal, a natural phenomenon, not the result of our own genetic tinkering. An Asian arowana selectively bred to be a different shape or size or color not found in nature is, in its own way, no longer an arowana. It ceases to be a natural creature and becomes yet another display of human domination.