Wild Things

In a city known for having fun, families should check out the real party animals

By: Chere Dastugue Coen

Once a plantation outside the bustling port city of New Orleans, Audubon Park now exists in one of the city’s famous historic residential districts. Its many uses have included the site for the World’s Fair and Cotton Centennial Exposition in 1884, and the Natatorium, once the South’s largest swimming pool.

Now, Audubon Park is home to meandering paths that follow centuries-old, moss-laden oak trees and numerous lagoons, a botanical gardens and a first-class golf course.

But what visitors come to see most within the 247-acre park is the renowned Audubon Zoo.

Nestled at the riverside of the massive park, the zoo offers acres of a variety of exhibits that range from the dark and exotic creatures of the Reptile Encounter to the enchanting Children’s Zoo with its new Endangered Species Carousel.

A casual trip through Audubon Zoo can take all day. There are special exhibits, such as the Jaguar Jungle, where Jabiru storks, sloths and spider monkeys dance within a Mayan-themed rainforest habitat. The white tiger exhibit has always been a popular draw, and the sibling tigers that are close to 380 pounds each are a new addition.

The Louisiana Swamp Exhibit offers a trip back in time to a 1930s swamp settlement, complete with trapper’s cottage and cypress swamp. The stagnant water is filled with alligators, raccoons, nutria, snakes and other swamp critters, including an albino alligator.

Every fall, the Audubon swamp comes alive with the sounds of Cajun and zydeco music, in addition to crafts and local food, during the annual Louisiana Swamp Fest. This year’s event will take place over two weekends, Oct. 4-5 and Oct. 11-12. Musicians scheduled to perform are BeauSoleil with Michael Doucet, Rockin’ Dopsie, Buckwheat Zydeco, C.J. Chenier and Bruce Daigrepont, among many others.

Dancing is de rigueur, so wear comfortable shoes, and prepare to sample Cajun favorites such as jambalaya, crawfish pie, fried alligator and couchon du lait, the Cajun version of a hog roast. Artists and musicians usually hang around after their sets, so chatting with the locals and nabbing autographs is a given.

Favorite sites among locals in Audubon Park are many. The sea lion pool in the historic Popp Gardens, where lively shows are offered daily beneath the ancient live oaks, resonates with memories from the early days of the park.

Equally nostalgic among locals is a mound of earth that has brought infinite pleasure to the children of New Orleans. Monkey Hill rises only about 100 feet but it might as well be a mountain to the flatlanders of Louisiana. The Works Progress Administration created the hill in the 1930s in an effort to give the city’s children a chance to view land above sea level. Today, the hill also features a five-level, 20-foot-high treehouse and a canopy of cypresses nearby for weary parents to rest while their children roll down the embankment.

Zoo admission is $10, which includes all exhibits except for the carousel and train rides. Admission is $5 for children ages 2 to 12 and $6 for seniors ages 65 and up. Zoo memberships vary in price, but allow free admittance at any time.

Audubon Zoo hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends.

The zoo is located about a half a mile from the streetcar line on St. Charles Avenue.

866-ITS-AZOO (866-487-2066) or 504-581-4629; www.auduboninstitute.org.

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