“The blue jays complain! If I don’t get those peanuts out quickly enough, the blue jays actually complain!” – Elise Beron
FRANK METHE PHOTOGRAPH
It is those certainties of life, those everyday, you-can-set-your-watch-by-’em occurrences that give our lives focus and keep us balanced and sane in an ever-nuttier world, experts say.
For instance: If it’s 3 p.m. in New Orleans, you know that “The Jerry Springer Show” is on somewhere on some television station and that Elise Beron is tossing out corn and bread to the birds, turtles and fish at some pond somewhere around these parts.
If this isn’t a sign that all is right with the world, it does at least mean that Beron is still right as rain and true to her calling, Springer-mania notwithstanding.
“You can always find me at City Park, Bonnabel and West Esplanade or Audubon Park,” the 78-year-old retired schoolteacher says. “I’m at City Park every day, then over to the canal at Bonnabel. On weekends, I’m usually at Audubon Park.”
At the beginning of each week, Philip, Beron’s husband of 56 years, loads two 50-pound bags of corn and 30 loaves of bread into the trunk of his wife’s familiar compact car – “familiar” because geese run, ducks fly in and fish and turtles come to the surface when they even anticipate that white car pulling up to their “regular” feeding spot. They never mistake any other white car for hers, she says.
“They know when I’m coming,” Beron says. “They know and they come up right to the area where I park. They just know this. One day, my car was in the shop and I used my husband’s car, a green one. Well, I pulled up and – nothing. I had to get out of the car and let them see me before they became excited and realized who it was.”
Nor is Beron’s feeding frenzy of friends limited to those that fly and swim. Kids hang out of the windows of passing school buses and cheer her on. Folks driving past slow down, honk their horns and wave.
“I guess people kind of expect to see me out there at one of those spots,” Beron says. “I was in Baton Rouge for two or three weeks after (Hurricane) Katrina. People in the neighborhoods where I feed the birds and turtles all asked me where I had been and said they were worried about us. I’m told all through that time we were away, the ducks came every evening and waited. But many of them flew off after the storm. We had a horrible experience with our cygnet swans in City Park. They were just becoming beautiful and white and lovely as (fully grown) swans are. But Katrina came and they were gone. We found one adult (swan) and three cygnets in Audubon Park and they stayed there awhile. But they, too, flew away. It was sad.”
Beron spent her “growing up years” split between Uptown and Mid-City, and idled away “a lot of time on picnics” at both Audubon and City parks. Certainly, she tossed a few crumbs to the ducks and fish back then, but it wasn’t until her geologist husband was working in the North Sea and she was living in the Netherlands that “feeding the ducks” took hold in 1972.
“It was such fun and so very relaxing and I felt so close to nature and at peace,” she says.
Feeding her friends continued after the Berons moved back to New Orleans and expanded after her days as a school teacher to include just about anything that flies or swims, although sometimes the “dark side” as one onlooker put it, surfaces.
“I was in City Park feeding the ducks and squirrels and blue jays and turtles. And the turtles began to gather near a bridge. I noticed what had to be about 100 gathering one day … then the next. Well, other people noticed that also.
They started fishing the turtles. One man filled four big ice chests with turtles. That’s not why I was feeding them,” she continues. “It hurt me so much to see that. Well, I left near the bridge where I had been feeding them and moved over near the Girl Scout hut on the other side of the lagoon, but it was never the same. The big soft shell turtles were all gone.”
Elise Beron pushes on feeding not only the fish and fowl of the lagoons of the city, but also feral cats and stray dogs that congregate near her home. She says that her husband now drives her to her self-appointed feeding rounds from time to time and always sits and reads and waits patiently while she feeds her flocks and schools.
“I have people stop by and ask me if my husband has ever finished that book he’s been reading,” she says. “Truth is, he’s finished many books waiting for me while I feed all the animals.”
“Sure, it gets a little expensive,” she says. “But this is my treat … to them and to myself.”
She volunteers at many community organizations, but it’s on the banks of these ponds feeding her “friends” that brings her the most joy.
And when you watch Beron standing there tossing bread and corn and saying things like, “I call this one ‘catcher’ because he once caught 64 pieces of bread in a row – right out the air!” And when you see her with that perpetual smile on her lips using words such as, “peaceful,” “rewarding” and “beautiful,” well, you just know she’s found something that you don’t find watching “The Jerry Springer Show.”