Animal attraction: How the Audubon Zoo got started
When it roared ashore as a Category 4 storm on Sept. 29, the unnamed hurricane of 1915 was an unmitigated disaster for the people of New Orleans. Some $13 million in damage was done to the city. An estimated 275 people were killed. The cupola atop the Presbytere was blown completely off the building. But New Orleanians know a thing or two about rebuilding after disaster. Using insurance money from the storm’s destruction of the massive Horticultural Hall in Audubon Park — which had been built for the 1884 World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition — the state used insurance money to build to build an aviary to house exotic birds on the site. It was a hit, marking the start of efforts to build a full-on zoo for the city.
In just more than a century, the idea behind that initial oversized bird cage has truly taken wing. In addition to the world-class Audubon Zoo, which now covers 58 acres and includes some 2,000 animals, the Audubon Nature Institute also operates such ancillary facilities as the Aquarium of the Americas, the Audubon Insectarium, the Audubon Louisiana Nature Center, Woldenberg Riverfront Park and the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species.
- Animals had been on display in Audubon Park as early as the 1884 World Cotton Centennial, and efforts to build a proper zoo date back as far as 1894.
- By 1925, an elephant house and aquarium were built to complement the aviary. The zoo’s sea lion pool — still in use — soon followed.
- Efforts to build a proper zoo received a shot in the arm in 1929, when Dixie Beer co-founder Valentine Merz — who long enjoyed strolling with his wife through the gardens of Audubon Park — died and bequeathed $50,000 to the city “for the development and maintenance of the zoo” at Audubon Park.
- Merz’s gift served as the local matching funds for a $282,000 capital improvement project undertaken by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Depression-era Works Progress Administration. It put some 260 men to work on a number of red-brick edifices — some of which are still in use — as well as a series of animal cages.
- The “Merz Memorial Zoo,” as it was known, was dedicated in 1938. Most people still continued to call it “the Audubon Park zoo,” but a sundial in Merz’s honor stands today in middle of the zoo facility, near what was once the front gates.
- By the 1970s, the zoo drew the attention of animal rights activists, who criticized the cramped, primitive conditions of the animal enclosures. That kick-started a fundraising drive and a 1972 voter-approved tax measure that saw the zoo get a stem-to-stern overhaul, replacing those cages with enclosures more closely resembling natural habitats.
- The Audubon Zoo has been featured in a number of feature films, including in director Paul Schrader’s 1982 horror-thriller remake “Cat People.”
- The zoo was immortalized in song by The Meters, with their playful 1976 tune “They All Ask’d For You,” which mentions various animals in Audubon Zoo. Released as a single with “Hey Pocky A-Way” on the B-side, it has become a beloved Carnival staple.
While New Orleans might be seen by the misinformed masses strictly as an adult playground, locals know well that the city’s appeal to families runs deep, and the Audubon Zoo has long been central to that. From its annual Mother’s Day concerts to its Zoo-to-Doo fundraising shindig to its outdoor summer screening series to its regular, day-to-day offerings, it has become a year-round social and cultural destination. That, combined with the Audubon Nature Institute’s dedication to species preservation — not to mention its multitude of sister facilities — has helped the zoo become an irreplaceable jewel in the local entertainment and educational landscape. “They all ask’d for you,” is what famous Meters song playfully says of the zoo’s animals, but in truth, New Orleans “ask’d” for them first, and the city’s got a world-class zoo to prove it.