While there are elements of Audubon Zoo that New Orleanians will always want to see – kids running down Monkey Hill, the Roman Candy Man and the fact that “they all axed for you,” just to name a few – today’s modern zoos are constantly changing and adapting to not only allow visitors to see animals but also to educate about conservation. The new lion exhibit embraces that very mission with its new pride of lions that recently made their debut in the Big Easy.

On May 18, the zoo opened its new lion exhibit to the public, welcoming four new lions: a four-year-old male named Arnold and three-year-old sisters Nia, Kali and Zuri. These lions, however, are not the first at the zoo. The previous lion exhibit lasted until 2013, when male Bubba died of cancer and the female Cassie “retired” to the survival center that the zoo has on the Westbank.

The goal since has been to bring the “roar” back to New Orleans, and a $5 million gift from philanthropists Joy and “Boysie” Bollinger made the expansive exhibit possible. The lions now have 12,000 square feet of roaming space and a 4,000-square-foot holding facility. The exhibit is meant to resemble an African savannah with native trees and grasses. There are also large pieces of granite called “kopjes” that provide shade and a vantage point for the lions to both see and be seen by spectators.

Every effort has been made for the exhibit to reflect the cultural traditions of the African savannah. Local artist Theresa Norris painted a mural depicting lions, zebras and other animals in the Tingatinga style, which originated in Tanzania but spread to East Africa and features bright saturated colors (usually created with bicycle paint) and surrealist images.

While the exhibit aims to highlight these cultural traditions, it also shows how the modern world has had a huge effect on lions in the wild. A replica of a 1920s-era train station offers panoramic views of the habitat as well as places with up-close views of the lions. However, the station is also meant to highlight how modern travel brought man closer to the animals, which also brought poaching and exploitation of Africa’s natural resources. Trying to create a counterpoint, mock train cars have become research stations that teach young and old about lion conservation and care.

Audubon is part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums “Species Survival Plan,” which aims to help save endangered species from extinction. The opening day event specifically helped raised money for the Ruaha Carnivore Project, which helps protect large carnivores, like lions, in Tanzania’s remote Ruaha region. There are only about 20,000 lions in the world, making them a highly endangered animal, and Audubon hopes their exhibit will provide funding and outreach toward increasing that number.

While this renovation and expansion of the zoo perhaps has made the biggest noise of late, it’s among several over the last few years that have transformed what were cramped and cage-like exhibits into expansive habitats that educate, as well as enthrall, patrons and visitors. The new elephant exhibit, the expanded Jaguar Jungle as well as the larger petting zoo have all been part of a comprehensive efforts to reconsider how the modern zoo can serve the vast amount of people that visit every year while maintaining a strong resolve to protect the animals that are both within its walls as well as those that are endangered in the far corners of the globe.

Just the Facts …

Audubon Zoo
Summer Hours: Mondays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Admission: $19.95 for adults & $14.95 for seniors and children