Audubon Nature Institute History

Historical black and white photo of the lagoon at Audubon Park.Audubon Nature Institute has its roots in historic Audubon Park, a natural setting for family recreation since the 1800s, and Audubon Zoological Gardens, which evolved from a single flight cage built in 1916 to a 58-acre jewel ranking among the nation’s best zoos. Along the way, Audubon grew into a respected steward for economic leadership, conservation and environmental education.

Strong public and private support drove the Zoo’s phoenix-like rise in the 1970s when it replaced cramped cages with lush natural habitat, evolving from an “animal ghetto” to an “urban oasis.” The success of the Zoo provided impetus for future Audubon projects, inspiring enduring community support and commitment.

Audubon Nature Institute created Woldenberg Riverfront Park in 1989, giving the city its first direct access to the downtown Mississippi riverfront and providing a beautiful setting for Audubon Aquarium of the Americas (1990), where visitors explore fascinating aquatic environs ranging from the Great Maya Reef to the Amazon Rainforest. Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center, a 1,200-acre sanctuary where threatened animals live and breed undisturbed, debuted in 1993. Audubon Louisiana Nature Center, an 86-acre preserve within the New Orleans city limits, joined the family in 1994. Entergy IMAX® Theatre (now Entergy Giant Screen Theater) opened in 1995 at the Aquarium, utilizing the most advanced motion picture technology available. In 1996, Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species opened to develop assisted reproduction techniques to breed disappearing species. Also that year, Audubon Wilderness Park began operating as an educational “field” resource for life science study by school, camp, and scout groups. In 2008, Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium became the first major attraction to open in post-Katrina New Orleans, signaling that recovery was underway.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 proved Audubon was capable of nimble response to yet another disaster. Working closely with state and federal agencies, Audubon created a kind of sea turtle triage facility at the Audubon Aquatic Center on the Survival Center campus, setting protocol and focusing expertise and resources on caring for several hundred turtles injured in the spill.

Logo for Alliance for Sustainable Wildlife, founded by Audubon Nature Institute and San Diego Zoo Global.In 2012, Audubon entered into an historic partnership with San Diego Zoo Global to create a new program for breeding disappearing Zoo animals on the site of the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center. Other new programming at the Survival Center included Gulf United for Lasting Fisheries (G.U.L.F.), dedicated to the conservation of U.S. fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. In 2013, implementation began after years of careful planning and a fair amount of red tape to rebuild Audubon Louisiana Nature Center, which was destroyed as a result of Hurricane Katrina.

Audubon Nature Institute is committed to “Celebrating the Wonders of Nature” every day in this city where celebrations are woven into the basic fabric of life. Each member of the Audubon family is unique, but essential to the overall character of the collection. Our success is measured in such tangibles as visitor attendance, the births of disappearing wildlife, the substantial economic impact on our community, and the smiles on the faces of the children who visit us all year long.

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A group of smiling children hold out their hands while butterflies land on them.One Family, One Legacy

Picture Audubon Nature Institute as a single family tree with many far-reaching branches. From seeds sown more than a century ago, it has grown into an unrivaled family of facilities that celebrates the wonders of nature. The tree is nurtured by a unique culture which owes its beginning—and its ongoing development—to dynamic vision and leadership, enduring entrepreneurial spirit, intense commitment to innovation and passionate community support. This culture has been a catalyst for success that sets Audubon Nature Institute apart.

Rooted in Innovation

The Audubon family began in Audubon Park—once home to Native Americans, and later, to New Orleans' first mayor, Etienne de Boré. He founded the nation's first commercial sugar plantation here and developed its first granulated sugar through a process invented by Norbert Rillieux, a local free man of color. The land would not fall into public hands until 1850, when a philanthropist willed it to the city. During the Civil War, the location alternately hosted a Confederate camp and a Union hospital. In 1866, it was the activation site for the 9th Calvary, the "Buffalo Soldiers" whose defense of our country's western frontier made an indelible mark on America's African-American heritage.

Site improvements made for The World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition of 1884 (Louisiana's first world's fair) laid the foundation for an urban park. The city had acquired the land for this purpose in 1871 and in 1886, city planners changed the park's name from Upper City Park to Audubon Park. This was in tribute to artist/naturalist John James Audubon who painted many of his famed "Birds of America" in Louisiana.

A governing board was appointed by the city in 1894 to find the best way to develop the land and by the turn of the century, the development had been entrusted to landscape architect John Charles Olmsted. Olmsted's family firm had risen to prominence for its design of New York's Central Park, and New Orleanians soon watched their own scenic retreat materialize from Louisiana swamplands.

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A baby hippo sits in straw while being feed from a bottle at the Audubon Nature Institute.A Time of Challenge
From Animal Ghetto to Urban Eden

Expensive to maintain and operate, the Merz facility held its own until the 1950s. Deterioration followed as city appropriations dwindled, private donations dried up and public interest waned. There were a few bright moments (including the 1956 arrival of the first endangered whooping crane hatched in a zoo), but times were mostly bad. Blasted by the media as an animal “ghetto” in 1958 and urged to “clean up or close up” by the U.S. Humane Society in 1970, the Zoo—now called Audubon Zoo—begged recovery.

Recovery finally came through the efforts of devoted community volunteers, and a remarkable public/private collaboration through the Audubon Commission. In 1972 the Commission spearheaded passage of a special referendum which generated nearly $2 million in bonds to finance the beginning of the Zoo’s restoration. The volunteers formally rallied as Friends of the Zoo, and in 1973, Ron Forman—the City Hall Liaison for Audubon Park—came on board with a grand vision that evolved into a new master plan for the Zoo. Forman and the Audubon Commission expanded the Zoo to its current 58 acres, allowing for sweeping natural habitats that mirrored wild environments: the African Savanna, North American Grasslands and the South American Pampas. Other new adventures included a Children’s Zoo and a World of Primates exhibit.

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Pelicans play in the water at the Flight Cage at Audubon Zoo in a historical photo.Birth of a Zoo

The Audubon Commission was established by State Act in 1914 to maintain and develop Audubon Park. A flight cage was added to the park in 1916, and its popularity launched the community’s call for a full-scale zoo. Community leaders united as the New Orleans Zoological Society, and (in a tradition carried on today) private donations soon funded a monkey cage, a mammal cage and a deer paddock. The first elephant, purchased by Louisiana schoolchildren, arrived in 1924. An aquarium and a colonnaded sea lion pool fueled the momentum, and by 1929, the collection boasted hundreds of animals.

When the Depression of the 1930s shut down private donations, the city’s hope for a zoo was kept alive by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). This federal agency funded construction of new zoo buildings, and in 1938, a $50,000 bequest from local benefactor Valentine Merz enabled the opening of the Merz Memorial Zoo.

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An Audubon Nature Institute volunteer shows a baby alligator to 2 small boys.Rise of a Role Model

Audubon Zoo’s Phoenix-like rise led to accreditation from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association in 1981. Industry peers were further impressed by the 1984 debut of the Louisiana Swamp Exhibit. Its unprecedented exhibit style not only displayed native animals in a stunningly realistic environment, it used cultural elements to capture the lifestyle of the Cajun people who have endeared Louisiana’s swamplands to the world.

Audubon’s incredible turnaround set a new benchmark for zoo exhibits…and New Orleans success stories. Most importantly, the Zoo’s rebirth firmly anchored Audubon among the nation’s top-rated zoological parks and inspired support for future developments that would benefit the city culturally—and economically.