Meet the Rare White Alligators: Audubon Zoo, New Orleans

Lisa Fritscher May 18, 2011 No Comments

The Audubon Zoo Park Entrance

The Audubon Zoo began as a 19th century urban park

The Audubon Nature Institute consists of 10 parks and attractions throughout New Orleans, all devoted to conservation. The Institute got its start in 1914 as the Audubon Commission, established by state law to manage what was then Upper City Park. Now known as Audubon Park, it was built on a portion of the nation’s first commercial sugar plantation in 1884 as part of the World’s Industrial Centennial and Cotton Exposition.

One of the Audubon Commission’s first projects was the 1916 addition of a flight cage. The Commission continued to add animal exhibits throughout the 1920s. Despite the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) helped keep the project going and, with the help of a private benefactor, the Merz Memorial Zoo officially opened in 1938.

The Swamp Train at the Audubon Zoo

The Swamp Train runs through the center of the Zoo

The zoo hung on through the next two decades, but in 1958 it was blasted in the media as an “animal ghetto.” By 1970, the Humane Society was calling for its closure. The Audubon Commission rallied with the help of local volunteers, spearheading a remarkable renovation project decades ahead of its time. The new master plan called for expanding the zoo to 58 acres and creating natural habitats beyond anything the United States had seen. In 1981, the now-renamed Audubon Zoo received accreditation from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA), and quickly became a role model for other older parks.

Today the Zoo remains the centerpiece of the Audubon collection, regularly adding new exhibits and experiences. Dad and I visited on a warm Sunday in April 2011.

Visiting the Zoo

As of 2011, individual Zoo admission is $14.95 for adults, $11.95 for seniors over age 65 and $9.95 for children aged 2 to 12. If you plan to visit multiple Audubon attractions, combination tickets offer a significant discount. For long-term visitors, annual membership offers a variety of discounts and benefits. Attractions such as Cool Zoo, the Swamp Train, Dinosaur Adventure and the Carousel, require separately priced tickets.

Our Experience

Audubon Zoo Entrance Lines

Lines are sometimes long, but usually move quickly

The Zoo is located off Magazine Street in New Orleans’ Uptown district. Unlike the downtown properties, the Zoo has a massive free parking lot attached. Unfortunately for us, a new section had just opened and it seemed everyone in New Orleans decided to visit! Time your visit for a weekday and you should be able to find a reasonably close parking spot.

There were long lines at the ticket booths, but they moved surprisingly quickly. You’ll get a hand stamp as you enter the gate, allowing you to come and go all day. Grab a park map on your way in, as the maze-like feel of the sweeping exhibits can be disorienting. There is a “suggested route” printed on the map, but we didn’t totally follow the recommendations. Take a look at the activity schedule, as feeding and training sessions are offered throughout the day.

Audubon Zoo Elephant Demonstration

The elephant ring provides excellent photo ops

We were just in time for the elephant demonstration, so we headed there first. An educator narrates, giving all sorts of interesting information about elephant behavior, while a handler leads the elephant through a series of exercises. This was a terrific photo opportunity, as the elephant ring is quite close to the gathered crowd.

Divided into sections such as “Jaguar Jungle” and “Asia Domain,” the zoo was filled with animal encounters around every turn. Unlike many zoos that require a long walk between exhibits, the Audubon Zoo is relatively compact and each exhibit leads seamlessly into the next.

Zoofari Cafe New Orleans

The Zoofari Cafe serves typical fair foods

We had lunch at the main Zoofari Café, located roughly in the middle of the park near the historic Carousel. Menu options included such typical tourist fare as burgers and hot dogs. If you are in the mood for more authentic New Orleans dining, hold out for the Cypress Knee Café in the Louisiana Swamp exhibit. Red beans and rice and gumbo are among its more popular offerings. The Flamingo Café at the main entrance offers outdoor counter service. A variety of snack and beverage stands are found throughout the Zoo.

Historic Traditions

Sea Lion habitat Audubon Zoo

The Sea Lion habitat dates to 1928

Despite massive renovations, the Zoo retains much of its 1930s charm. The elegant columns of the Sea Lion habitat date to 1928, while the grounds are dotted with historic brick buildings from the WPA era. Monkey Hill is a New Orleans tradition, built in the WPA era to show the children of flat New Orleans what a hill looks like. At 28 feet tall, it is the highest point within city limits! Today Monkey Hill offers a rope bridge, animal sculptures and a wading pool, but retains a grassy slope. A roll down Monkey Hill is a time-honored tradition for local kids.

Louisiana Swamp

Louisiana Swamp

The Louisiana Swamp highlights the relationship between man and water

The massive Louisiana Swamp exhibit has won national acclaim for its portrayal of a well-balanced habitat. Along a series of walkways, you will discover the harmonious relationship that early Cajun settlers had with the land and water around them. Take time to check out the wooden buildings and catch an alligator feeding. Near the end of the Louisiana Swamp is a display dedicated to Audubon’s famed leucistic white alligators.

Leucistic alligator

Leucistic alligators are incredibly rare

Unlike the somewhat more common albinos, leucistic white alligators have brilliant blue eyes. The first leucistic alligators were discovered in a swamp near Houma, Louisiana in 1987. Their bright coloring makes it impossible for them to survive in the wild, so 18 leucistic hatchlings were brought to the Zoo. International media attention quickly turned them into the Zoo’s most enduring symbol. A single female was discovered in 1994, and two more were found in 2009. All have become part of the Audubon family, although some of the gators are eventually transferred to other facilities around the country. These three discoveries are the only documented cases of leucistic alligators in recorded human history.

Separately Priced Attractions

Dinosaur Adventure New Orleans

Go back in time at the realistic Dinosaur Adventure

You could easily fill an entire day at the Zoo without indulging in any separately priced attractions. But they are fun, reasonably priced and potentially worth a stop. The newest upcharge attraction is Cool Zoo. This splash park, priced at $5 per person as of 2011, offers three distinct zones including one specifically for younger children.

Dinosaur Adventure is a walk-through exhibit that simulates the natural world in the age of the dinosaurs. Massive, highly realistic audio-animatronic dinosaurs are the highlight of the exhibit, which also features fossil digs and educational activities. As of 2011, tickets are $4 per person.

The Swamp Train is a fun narrated ride across the park, departing throughout the day from the Carousel and the Louisiana Swamp. The Gottesman Family Endangered Species Carousel features 60 animals from a wide variety of species. As of 2011, the Swamp Train costs $5 and the Carousel is $2.

Tips for Parents

Reptile House Audubon

The reptile house closes 30 minutes before park closing

The Zoo is easily a full-day park. The Reptile House closes 30 minutes before park closing, so make sure to budget your time. We were inside when it closed, and it was rather eerie when they started turning off the lights!

There is a single smoking area, located in the far corner past the aviary. The area once led to the loading dock for the Zoo Cruise, a riverboat ride between the Zoo and the Aquarium. The riverboat cruise closed several years ago, but the area remains a nice place to relax.

The Zoo offers plenty of opportunities for kids to run around and burn off energy, so don’t pack your schedule too full. Also remember that New Orleans is hot and humid. Dress in lightweight clothing and drink plenty of fluids to keep everyone hydrated.

Audubon Zoo is fully accessible. Wheelchairs, strollers and wagons are available for rent at a nominal charge. You must present a photo ID or a $5 deposit for all rentals.

avatarAbout the Author:

Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

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