Fall 2014

Inventory / Two by Two

Counting the animals in the zoo

Jeffrey Kastner

“Inventory” is a column that examines or presents a list, catalogue, or register.

While the practice of keeping wild animals may be traced back deep into antiquity—archeological records suggest that the ancient Egyptian capital of Hierakonpolis was the site of a menagerie containing hippopotami, elephants, baboons, and other exotic species as early as 3500 BCE—it wasn’t until the late eighteenth century that “zoos” emerged as civic amenities, and well into the twentieth before field-wide standards for their operation began to be established. As zoos evolved from repositories for unusual animals into scientific centers focused on conservation research, record keeping and information sharing became increasingly crucial. Central to these efforts is the annual inventorying of all the individual organisms—from lions and giraffes to ants and worms—held by a given zoo. Since the early 1970s, the data from these inventories, which some institutions like the London Zoo have turned into public relations events, have been amassed by and shared through the International Species Information System (ISIS), a non-profit organization based in Minneapolis that currently gathers information from over nine hundred participating zoos around the world. Jeffrey Kastner spoke by phone with Nathan Flesness, ISIS’s science director, about the history of animal inventories and his organization’s role in contemporary zoological practice.

Cabinet: This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the International Species Information System (ISIS). How did it begin and what was going on in the field of zoo management at the time that made an organization like ISIS particularly timely?

Nathan Flesness: ISIS was founded by Ulysses Seal, a polymath who was faculty at the University of Minnesota in both biochemistry and wildlife. Through his work in comparative biochemistry, he had come in contact with people who were doing comparative endocrinology with exotic animals. Along the way, he was working on blood and discovered that neither the wildlife community nor the zoo community nor the national park community had any valid source for normal blood values for animals under their care. Part of the idea for ISIS came from the need to compile normal blood values for wildlife. Back then, if you ran a zoo and sent an animal’s blood sample to a lab, they would compare it to human norms, because that’s all they had.

That’s shocking.

Where would they get python and elephant norms? Seal started ISIS from a veterinary standpoint and then discovered that when he went back to the zoos that had brought him in to do blood sampling and asked if he could get the same giraffe or lion again because it was two years older, for instance, and he wanted to examine the affects of age, they would say, “Well, we’re not exactly sure which one that was.” They had vet records on specific cases, but not reliable, long-term individual animal logs. There were obviously a few animals that were distinguishable visually, but for most collections in most zoos, there weren’t reliable long-term records. Those were the record-keeping challenges in the 1970s when ISIS was founded.

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