Lonely elephants, edgy apes shaken by post-Katrina life at zoo

Jennifer Latson

NEW ORLEANS – An AWOL alligator has resurfaced, elephants are forlorn and apes are agitated at Audubon Zoo, one of the nation’s most renowned animal sanctuaries, left by Hurricane Katrina both broken and broke.

On the human side, zoo officials face a $60 million cleanup bill and have had to lay off 400 of their 500 employees indefinitely. Heavily dependent on admission fees even in the best of times, the zoo won’t reopen until Thanksgiving, and then only for weekends.

On the animal side, too, life is turned upside down.

Accustomed to a parade of humanity as part of their habitat, the great apes are wary of the sudden stillness. Suspicious by nature, they have taken to hiding behind bushes, peeking out guardedly whenever workers come by.

Panya and Jean, the zoo’s two elephants, crave attention. At 5 tons and with flanks hard as concrete, Jean is a puckish entertainer who seems to miss her audience.

She perked up when a National Guard unit set up camp in the parking lot. Whenever the guardsmen visited, she’d come running, says Dan Maloney, Audubon’s curator.

“They may have been sneaking her treats. I don’t know.”

One alligator was missing for nearly two weeks after Katrina. It finally reappeared, probably from a den in its swampy domain where it had hunkered down.

To prepare for the hurricane, zookeepers stockpiled two weeks’ worth of feed, fuel and water. More than a ton of hay had to be stored for Panya and Jean, each of whom scarf up 150 pounds a day.

Keepers feared mass casualties among the 1,500 creatures at Audubon, but only a few animals perished.

One raccoon drowned. Two otters died from shock and heat.

A rare Bali Mynah – a small, vocal white bird native to Bali – is missing and feared dead.

“It’s one of the most endangered birds in the world,” says Maloney. Only about a dozen are thought to exist in the wild.

“A lot of us expected the tropical bird house to lose its roof, and then we didn’t know if the birds would have flown off,” said bird keeper Charlie Pfeiffer.

But the aviary kept its lid. The only bird to escape was a vulture with clipped wings that nests on an island in the flamingo pond.

The flightless bird scuttled to freedom aboard a fallen tree, feasting on the dying Garden District birds that landed within the zoo’s ramparts.

Zookeepers found the vulture 50 yards from its island, bloated and content, four days later.

Animals who need cold temperatures and clean water were relocated: penguins and sea otters from Audubon’s Aquarium of the Americas and sea lions from the zoo were sent to similar facilities in California. They are due back in coming months.

The zoo is operated by Audubon Nature Institute, which also runs the aquarium. Most of the fish and aquatic animals there died after Katrina knocked out power.

Maloney, engaged in a major fundraising project, is eager for the turnstiles to spin.

“We’re a part of the community. It won’t be New Orleans without people coming to the zoo.”