Right on the orange-and-black tail of the arrival of a new Malayan tiger, Audubon Zoo officials are planning a new exhibit that would bring lions back to New Orleans and are hoping the city can pitch in $5 million to help.
“By early 2019, we plan to have lions back at the zoo,” said Ashley McClaran, director of construction for the Audubon Nature Institute. “They’ve been gone for a long time, and everybody complains that they come to a zoo with no lions. We have lions at the front gate, but no lions inside.”
The last lions to inhabit Audubon Zoo were the popular pair Bubba and Cassie until three years ago, said Frank Donze, a spokesman for the zoo. Bubba died of cancer in May 2013, and Cassie — now 18 years old — was “retired” to the Species Survival Center on the Westbank since the spring of the same year.
The city of New Orleans is in the middle of its annual review of each city agency’s five-year building plan, and Audubon appeared before city planners Wednesday afternoon to explain their upcoming projects. The $5 million that includes the lion area is actually known as the “Phase II Africa: Predators” exhibit, and the project includes money for the buildings and exhibits around the lions, but also new walkways through the entire of the area and placement of other animals such as hyenas and predatory birds.
“The whole goal is to display more wildlife in more immersive type of setting,” said Laurie Conkerton, chief administrative officer at Audubon.
The project also includes landscaping and infrastructure to improve the entire Africa area, which was built in the 1980s. Fire access roads will be improved, and the stormwater management using the lagoon will be upgraded, McClaran said.
“What we’re trying to create is a whole African predator exhibit, so we would need additional holding we don’t have funding for,” McClaran said. “This funding request is really for more animal holding and more exhibitry.”
The Africa request starts in 2017 with $304,000 for planning and design of the area, followed by around $2.3 million in both 2018 and in 2019 to pay for construction, McClaran said. In the meantime, Audubon’s animal experts are already in talks to make arrangements to obtain the lions from other zoos — which aren’t purchased, but do come with some transportation costs.
Audubon would like a male lion and either two or three females, so it can begin its own breeding program, Conkerton said. Because of that goal, zookeepers use complex family histories for the lions to ensure all those that arrive at Audubon will come from different genetic lines, keeping the species’ bloodlines as diverse as possible, she said.
“It takes you a couple of years to line up the animals and get them ready to go,” Conkerton said. “It’s a matchmaking service, in essence. You try to put the animals that have a great shot of breeding and expanding the captive gene pool together.”
Audubon also made two other capital-projects requests on Wednesday, $3 million for infrastructure improvements at Woldenberg Park and $10 million for future development on the downtown riverfront.
The Woldenberg Park project is meant to strengthen the park against the increased toll of festival preparations — most particularly the heavy trucks that cut through the grass to set up stages. The brick pathways they currently use will be reinforced so that they don’t break as easily, and more landscaping will be added around those paths so that the trucks cannot cut through the grass. Most of the actual site work will be underground, officials said, so the only change that visitors will notice are the addition of a few more trees around the paths.
City planners asked whether any of the infrastructure work would reduce public access to Woldenberg Park on a day-to-day basis. McClaran replied that it will actually increase access to the park, by dramatically shortening the amount of maintenance and repairs needed after a major event.
“It’s actually an improvement because the turnover will be so much faster,” McClaran said. “The day after a festival, you have a park that looks like a park.”
The money for downtown-riverfront development does not have a specific target at the moment, Conkerton said, but is intended as a sort of placeholder for discussing adding more green space near Governor Nicholls Street in the future the development of other properties continues nearby. “The ultimate goal is to have connected linear parks with no interruptions along the water’s edge” from the Crescent Park to the Morial Convention Center, the request reads.
City planners will next review all the city agencies’ requests as part of their recommendation on next year’s budget, which will be adopted by the City Council later this year.