The Audubon Zoo is a zoo located in New Orleans, Louisiana. It is part of the Audubon Nature Institute which also manages the Aquarium of the Americas. The zoo covers 58 acres (23 ha) and is home to 2,000 animals. It is located in a section of Audubon Park in Uptown New Orleans, on the Mississippi River side of Magazine Street. The zoo and park are named in honor of artist and naturalist John James Audubon who lived in New Orleans starting in 1821.
Some of the exhibits include gorillas, orangutans, and the Louisiana swamp exhibit. It is also home to a rare white alligator with blue eyes. The zoo is open year round Tuesday through Sunday and Monday through Sunday in the spring and summer, except Mardi Gras, the First Friday in May, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day.
While there had been animal exhibits on and around this site for the World Cotton Centennial Exhibition 1884 World's Fair, the origins of the current zoo are found in the early 20th century. A flight cage has been in it since 1916. In the boom of the 1920s many additions were made; the sea lion pool with neo-classical columns from 1928 can still be seen today, as can a few art nouveau buildings later used as a reptile exhibit.
During the Great Depression a $400,000 expansion of the zoo was conducted by the Works Progress Administration. Many new cages were constructed, along with an artificial hill known as "Monkey Hill", built to show the children of flat New Orleans what a hill looks like. Local folklore calls Monkey Hill the highest point in New Orleans, although another artificial hill in City Park competes for that title.
By the early 1970s, the zoo was in a state of decay. The small prison-like brick and steel bar cages constructed by the WPA were no longer considered appropriate environments for many of the animals displayed in them. A study suggested that it should be closed down unless the city could make a major commitment to upgrade it. City government, local businesses, and private citizens rallied in support of it, and in 1975 the city's voters approved a measure to finance its rebuilding. Zoo grounds were expanded from 14 to 50 acres (57,000 to 200,000 m2). By the end of the decade, the Audubon Zoo was already well on its way to becoming one of the finest ones in the United States.
More improvements and expansions continued into the 21st century, making the Audubon Zoo popular not only with locals but also drawing substantial numbers of tourists visiting from other states and nations.
In 1987, an alligator nest was discovered with 18 freshly hatched babies with white hides—an extraordinary natural mutation called leucism (they are not albino). They received much attention when they went on display and became a symbol of the zoo.
In 1990, the Audubon Institute, which manages the zoo, opened the Aquarium of the Americas in the CBD at the edge of the French Quarter. Some of the white alligators were transferred to there, and a riverboat began service taking visitors between the facilities.
The WPA-era Monkey Hill, a favorite landmark of generations of New Orleans children, underwent extensive renovation in the early 21st century, including the addition of a waterfall for young children to play in, a rope web that goes to the summit (which now has statues of lions), and a 20-foot (6 m) high "safari outpost" at the base of the hill. For posterity's sake, a portion of it was left as grass, so that children can still roll down it.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, followed by severe consequences in the devastating aftermath of the storm. During the hurricane, zoo staff found refuge in the reptile house, which was apparently designed to withstand a major hurricane. Located on high ground atop an old natural river levee, it was not flooded. The majority of the animals survived—only three died—and the only major damage was downed trees. However, the zoo was short on food and other necessities in the days after the storm, and pumps were overheating.
The fact that the zoo sustained only minor damage can be attributed to disaster planning and its location on high ground. Zoo curator Dan Maloney was quoted as saying, "The zoo had planned for years for the catastrophic storm that has long been predicted for New Orleans."
The zoo reopened for Thanksgiving weekend in November 2005 and initiated a weekends-only schedule due to financial constraints. On March 1, 2006, it began a Wednesday through Sunday schedule, and eventually expanded to Tuesday through Sunday.
This exhibit is primarily outdoors, housing many samples of animals native to southern Louisiana. These include black bears, raccoons, otters, nutria, cottonmouth, copperhead, various colubrids, leucistic alligators, and a number of normal American ones.
After Hurricane Katrina, it was thematically decorated to mimic the scenes seen around the city. There was a small refrigerator taped up outside of the front door, a blue tarp stretched over the roof, and a marking that indicated no casualties were found in it, rather, that the eight alligators that inhabit it were fed with the notion of the number 8 and "Gators Fed"
One of the newer and more famous residents of this exhibit is the Komodo dragon. Many other animals are also housed here, including the beaded lizard, Gila monster, green anaconda, reticulated python, gaboon viper, rattlesnake, caiman, and quite a few other reptiles and amphibians.