Wednesday, April 4, 2012

First Okapi in the United States

$10,000 to $15,000 in 1946

March 25, 1946

I went to the animal fair

The birds and beasts were there.

The big baboon by the light of the moon

Was combing his auburn hair.

Before the war. New Yorkers found such an animal fair in the smelly old Bowery warehouse of Louis Ruhe, Inc. (pronounced Looie Rooie), world's largest wild-animal dealer. The fair was at its best in March. Then U.S. zoo keepers, searching for animals for the spring and summer zoogoers, would stalk lions and tigers, aardvarks and aye-ayes, capybaras and caimans, tarsiers and toucans, caged in Ruhe's warehouse.

Ruhe's $3,000,000-a-year business, founded in Germany in 1830, sickened during the war. But Heinz Ruhe, great grandson of the founder, kept the business going by bringing in small South American animals and birds, including quetzals, almost worth their weight in gold ($500 apiece). Other animal dealers imported "essential" monkeys for laboratory use. (The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis alone bought some 8,000 monkeys a year, at $20 a head.)

Away from Monkey Business. Last week the hunt for animals was again in full cry. U.S. zoos had lost an estimated 25 to 30% of their animals and birds during the war, now would spend millions to replace them. Heinz Rube's first postwar shipment was on its way to New York from Calcutta. His closest competitor, Henry Trefflich, whose warehouse was not far away, had landed his first shipment of 66 demoiselle cranes, worth about $200 a pair.

All over the world, agents of U.S. animal dealers were scouting bazaars and native villages. Some were taking their own expeditions into the jungles, but for the most part natives do the often dangerous job of trapping the animals.

Ruhe alone had six agents abroad (he had 20 before the war). They were looking for anything they could get at a reasonable price. Most of all they wanted to buy the okapi, a purplish-brown, short-necked relative of the giraffe, worth $10,000 to $15,000, the reddish, striped, forest antelope, known as the bongo, sometimes priced as high as $20,000. There is only one of each now in this country both in New York's Bronx Zoo. The Indian rhinoceros* and giant panda were in the same diamond and sable class. Less valuable were Siberian tigers (about $8,000) gorillas ($3,000-$5,000), hippos ($3.000-$4,000) and pygmy Elephants. Occasionally, baby elephants have been jobbed off as rare, high-priced pygmies. Cheapest animal of all is the king of beasts. Reason: lions and tigers breed so well in captivity that zoos sell them to each other for as little as $100.

Wanted: Hen's Teeth. But bargains in wild animals were as scarce as hen's teeth. War and inflation had shot animal prices sky high. In Burma, the war had killed off many elephants. The remainder were being used for reconstruction. In India, wealthy anti-British natives had been investing in elephants rather than war bonds, had driven elephant prices up to $2,250. Expenses of transportation and the 15% import duty on animals would bring the cost to the dealer up to $5,000 in New York. Prewar price to zoos: $2,000 to $3,000, f.o.b. New York.

Website for this image

Read part two for an interesting argument on when the okapi was first captured, possibly a lot earlier then history records.

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