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Monday, June 10, 2013

Zoo Review: Audubon Zoo

The Audubon Zoo has a wonderful collection of animals from around the world, but its best exhibit is, by far, the one that comes closest to home.  Twenty years or so after its opening, the Louisiana Swamp exhibit is still the crown jewel of the zoo.  With the exception of the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, it's doubtful that any other zoo approaches this level or detail and realism in displaying its native wildlife.  The alligator pool - home to several large gators - reminded me not of any other zoo gator exhibit I've seen, but of my first view of a wild alligator in the swamps of South Carolina.  The foxes and raccoons made me feel like I'd stumbled around a corner and actually seen a wild animal, unplanned and unexpected.  Otters, black bears, bobcats, and nutria round out the collection, along with an impressive assortment of swamp reptiles.  Even the concessions fit into the immersion effect, as guests could sit on the porch of a cajun shack and chow down on fried catfish and pecan pie.

This isn't to say that the other exhibits of Audubon weren't noteworthy.  The new Latin American exhibit, Jaguar Jungle, was a masterpiece in realism, with carved Mayan ruins modeled off of actual structures from Central America (more often it looks like zoos build their temple ruins - a cliche in themselves, I admit - with leftover props from Nickelodeon's Legends of the Hidden Temple).  The South American pampas yard was a beautiful stretch of marsh and lake, populated by tapirs, capybaras, screamers, and a flotilla of waterfowl.  The African Savannah was equally noteworthy.  The reptile house was one of the best I'd seen anywhere - both in terms of collection (ranging from crowd-pleasers like Komodo dragons to the obscure and seldom-seen, like Texas blind salamanders) and the exhibits themselves (the underwater viewing of Chinese alligators was especially impressive).

What made so many of the exhibits so believable was the plant life - I have never seen such an incredibly lush zoo (and staff I spoke to said that before Katrina, the vegetation was even denser!).  The aviary was so thickly planted that the ibises, shelducks, and other birds were easily lost in the greenery.  In the Louisiana Swamp, the fact that all of the plants were native only strengthened the immersive appeal.

Best of all, this was no zoo resting on its laurels.  The first exhibit I saw upon entry was the Asian elephant exhibit.  Anyone who has visited a lot of zoos has seen an elephant exhibit like this -  a small, gray, dusty yard with two elephant cows plodding around.  What they might not see is the massive construction site next door as the zoo prepares to expand its habitat size by several times (no zoo is going to be perfect, but every zoo should be willing to try anyway).  Audubon used to be consecutively ranked as one of the worst zoos in the United States.  Its continued renovation of itself has lead to it becoming celebrated as one of the best.

One of the newest features at the zoo is a non-animal attraction: a waterpark.  I've been told that this addition has resulted in thousands of extra (paying) visitors a year.  I know plenty of purists that I've worked with who would balk at this - "It's a zoo not an... an... an AMUSEMENT PARK!" - and I can certainly understand what they're saying.  With exhibit/breeding/holding space being such a precious commodity in zoos, I can understand not wanting to use any of it for purposes not directly related to the mission.

That being said, a zoo does have to support itself, and if waterparks and other attractions can serve as a lure to bring in visitors who otherwise might not come, there is something to be said for that (and heaven forbid visitors to a zoo have fun!). (Also, to be fair, the zoo isn't as limited for space as some other facilities may be - Audubon operates an off-site conservation breeding facility).  A zoo in this position, however, should probably be prepared to demonstrate how attractions like this (or ziplines, another popular new novelty) contribute to the zoo's overall mission.  It especially helps if you can find a way to tie it in as an educational or animal-themed component.

The zoo does not stand alone.  It is part of the Audubon Nature Institute, which also includes the Audubon Insectarium and the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, both located across town near the city's riverfront.

If you have the time and opportunity when visiting New Orleans, you should definitely try to ditch the city and get into the surrounding wilderness.  If not - and even if you can - take a break from Bourbon Street and catch a streetcar down to the Audubon Zoo.

PS: I can't end a review of Audubon without telling one of the most ridiculous stories about the place.  One of the most popular features of the zoo is the slight rise of land called "Monkey Hill".  There are no monkeys on it - the attraction is the hill itself.  Community leaders had it built so the children of notoriously-flat New Orleans could experience what a hill was.  Audubon Zoo does sit on some of the highest ground in New Orleans,which is partially responsible for the minimal damage the zoo suffered during Hurricane Katrina.

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