Like many zookeepers, the thought of owning my own zoo (preferably designing and building it, but settling for buying a preexisting one) has long been a dream. Needless to say, the news of a zoo for sale in Texas was an intriguing - if impossible - concept. There was a tremendous amount of discussion about it in the zookeeper groups on line - a few people suggested that we all pull our resources and buy the place. Bad idea, in my opinion. As opinionated as zookeepers tend to be, I think we'd all kill each other within a week.
As entertaining as the article was, there was one line which rubbed some of my colleagues - especially those who have never worked in the private, non-AZA sector. "[Wolston] can rattle off how much the animals are worth like they are cars or bottles of wine."
Historically, all zoos bought and sold and traded their animals, working through brokers like Carl Hagenbeck and Frank Buck. They bought animals that they wanted, bred them when they could, and sold or traded offspring for other specimens. As it was, each animal had a known price. Specimens that were hard to obtain, rare, and popular with the public commanded the highest prices.
With the rise of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and its Species Survival Plans, there has been much less focus on buying and selling of animals. Instead, animals are moved around the country as part of carefully coordinated breeding programs, working to maintain the genetic and demographic welfare of the populations. Even species that are not managed by SSPs are typically exchanged free of charge within AZA, sometimes as donations, sometimes as loans.
That doesn't change the fact that AZA-accredited facilities represent only a fraction of the zoos and aquariums in this country. For the rest, especially those that are not managed by governments or nonprofits, sales of surplus animals represent a crucial part of their income, or represent trading stock needed to maintain their collections.
Working at a non-AZA facility at my last position, I, like Mr. Wolston, knew the financial value of each specimen in the collection (mostly so I could judge how mad the owner would be whenever something died). I've never been comfortable with the idea of putting a price tag on a zoo animal - in my opinion, they are priceless. Also, no sum of money is worth the decision to lace the animal in a sub par home, as even a wealthy buyer may prove to be.