(For more New Orleans pages please scroll down)
The risk that New Orleans faced from a hurricane was front page news when I lived there 2 years before Hurricane Katrina caused the enactment of all that had been forewarned.
It should be no surprise then, that the New Orleans Audubon Zoo staff had a plan. They had deliberately reinforced the animal enclosures to withstand flood waters and had been stocking food for staff and animals in case of just such a disaster.
In the event, the staff stayed – taking refuge in the reptile house - because the animals couldn’t leave. When eventually the staff had to leave, New Orleans Police were given rapid training in penguin feeding and carried on for them.
Sadly the life giving oxygenation system for the wonderful aquarium stopped – and over 6000 marine creatures were added to the Hurricane Katrina loss of life.
Some of the survivors included Midas the green sea turtle (five of his companion turtles were released into the Gulf of Mexico), sea otters, penguins, sea dragons and fortunately, also some fish.
Along with land-bound survivors they went off to 'foster zoos' until once again the Audubon Zoo could reclaim them to their newly restored environment.
Due to the zoo’s forward planning, of the 1,400 Audubon Zoo animals, only a racoon and 2 otters perished.
Audubon Zoo lies within oak-tree-lined 340 acre (almost 138 hectares) Audubon Park, which runs down to the Mississippi River from St Charles Avenue, along which runs the celebrated St Charles Streetcar -or tram.
(Yes. Those who know the play/film: There IS a streetcar route named Desire – and Elysian Fields Avenue – broad, wide and tree-lined in imitation of the Champs Elysee in Paris)
Audubon Park, named after the famous ornithologist, naturalist and painter, John James Audubon, was a New Orleans resident from 1812.
is still a sought after reference and acclaimed as a great catalog and legacy of accurate bird observation.
Audubon Park is just a few minutes from the city centre, flanked by both Loyola and Tulane Universities. It has rightly been called an urban oasis.
Within it, the Cascade Stables give riding lessons from age 4 onwards, or you can just stable your horse there and ride through the park with your friends.
Audubon Park also has a swimming pool; 10 tennis courts in action from 8am onwards; 1.8 miles (almost 3 km) of jogging trails; 3 playgrounds, and a swing set – plus 12 picnic shelters of varying sizes, three of which can be booked in advance – and one of these having an integrated bandstand.
There is also an excellent Golf Course with Tif Eagle greens - 62 par around four lagoons.
The Audubon Golf Course was designed by Denis Griffith, who graduated in Landscape Architecture from Iowa State University, is a former President of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, and has the distinction of being the only American landscape architect to complete designs for that cradle of golf, the legendary St Andrews, in Scotland.
Denis Griffith is also a passionate advocate of creating excellent golf courses for public access – and is a fitting architect for this city of the arts, for as he says, his work lets him paint a picture with the landscape for people to enjoy in perpetuity. He says this course beside the Audubon Zoo was a special achievement.
For the golfers reading this, here is a review of it from a player’s perspective:
Audubon Park has a long history. It was formerly the home of native Americans, then a sugar plantation owned by the 1st Mayor of New Orleans, Etienne de Boré.
Boré is reputed to have invented the processes to granulate sugar.
The park has also been a Confederate Camp, Union Hospital, and the site of the World’s Fair of 1884 when New Orleans housed the Cotton Exchange and was the centre of US cotton production.
At the close of the Fair there were some monkeys and rare birds left behind – and this was the basis on which the Audubon Zoo was founded.
This is a zoo with delight for all ages, with its cooling sprays guarded by giraffe.
There are marvellously fanciful sign posts like this one hugged by the giant Komodo Dragon. There is one in residence in real life – the largest of the lizards - up to 9 feet long (2.7metres) and weighing up to 200lbs (90.7kilos). He would be able to outrun most humans because he travels at speeds of up to 15 miles per hour (24.14 kph).
There are playful pachyderms: the Asian elephants Panya and Jean – who spray themselves - and sometimes you as well.
Since Audubon Zoo is named for the great ornithologis, naturally there are many species of bird who make it their home.
There are ducks real - and bronzed.
…and a wonderful pond of pink.
Flamingos crowd around a small pool of water, bright against the reflected New Orleans blue skies of summer…
..and small, curious eyes peep through the treetops before, with a whisk of the tail, the squirrel is gone.
There are special events being held at Audubon Zoo regularly. I remember Jazz at the Zoo being a really lovely evening out.
You can experience a real Louisiana bayou environment, complete with trappers house and Cajun food (yum) – and white crocodiles; spend time with the primates and celebrate the birthdays of baby Sumatran Orangutans born in 2009. This threatened species could be extinct in less than 15 years without intervention and breeding in captivity.
Check out the different flipper waves of individual sea lions; visit the jaguars, spider monkey and that wonderful, almost cartoon character – the sloth – in the Mayan jungles.
Wonder at the rare white rhino – whose rapidly decreasing numbers in the wild are being supplemented by breeding in captivity – slowly, as Mrs. Rhino has a 17 month-long pregnancy.
See if Rex and Zulu, the white tigers, are awake and playful or just having a warm siesta - or play on, and roll down Monkey Hill.
Monkey Hill is a legacy of the Works Progress Administration – later to be re-badged as the Work Projects Administration or WPA, by whose initials the programme is generally remembered.
During the Great Depression, the Roosevelt Government developed a range of programmes to put unemployed people to work under the New Deal - and they became known by their acronyms, or initials – leading to a general branding of them as Alphabet Soup. Some of these programmes remain and some have been incorporated into others – but they made a huge impact on an otherwise hopeless section of the unemployed population.
Over the hard 8 year period of existence, the WPA provided work for over 3 million unskilled people (mostly men). Most American cities have a legacy of Public Works that comes from the labours of the WPA – and New Orleans has Monkey Hill at the Audubon Zoo.
Urban myth has it that it was created so the children of New Orleans would know what a hill looked like!
According to folklore, the 28 foot (8.5 metres) of Monkey Hill creates the tallest point in New Orleans (disputed by another hill in City Park).
It is a much-loved destination for small adventurers and has its own 5-level tree-house, rope and net bridges, and a wading pool.
But what makes Audubon Zoo truly magical is the response of its younger visitors.
..as they get the chance to make new friends with whom to look at the animals.
Someone once commented that
Wonder is the voiceless music in the heart
In New Orleans, the music city, you can see this voiceless heart music everywhere at the Audubon Zoo.