Blessed with glorious weather this year and – well, let’s be honest – an actual spring, the Audubon Zoo has been packed with kids dropping in with parents and family or on a field trip with friends. In turn our ever-expanding zoo has more space – and a newly expanded Jaguar Jungle exhibit – to welcome them, offering a glimpse to an ancient Mayan culture that seems far off but that, in fact, has ties closer to us than we may realize.

On March 23, the zoo opened Phase II of the Jaguar Jungle exhibit complete with a “Criaturas de la Noche” (“Creatures of the Night”) house, alpacas, a new play structure and a Maya Village Plaza with restrooms and a much-needed quiet place take a break in a farther corner of the zoo.

The night house is no doubt the star of the new expansion. Entering the darkened building immerses you into a mysterious world with more than 200 Seba’s bats as well as Nancy Ma’s night owl monkeys. Younger kids may be hesitant (for reference, it’s a tighter space than the reptile house), but the diversity of “criaturas” makes for a great game of night-time, Mayan-inspired “I spy.”

Another new feature of the exhibit is a large play structure that mirrors many of the stone statues meant to resemble Mayan relics and temples. While there are warnings that you’ll “anger the gods” if you climb the statues, the play structure has stairs and slides that will keep older kids occupied while parents take a break with smaller ones in the Maya Village. (Mom’s Note: The large stones used to build the “temple” may be too tempting for toddlers to climb, which signs politely ask you not to do.)

While the Jaguar Jungle is another bright spot in the zoo’s offerings, it’s also a reminder of how Audubon, like so many zoos in the United States, has shifted away from a darker past when they featured a collection of random animals in various – usually small – enclosures to creating multi-faceted exhibits and large habitats that aim to educate young and old about not just the animals on display, but the nature and cultures that surround them. Throughout the entire Jaguar Jungle, there are large sculptures, signs in Spanish and information about the importance of jaguars – and bats – to Mayan Culture. Also featured are the modern-day Maya and the role they have in contemporary Latin-American culture.

The new Jaguar Jungle not only builds upon the dream of a former Audubon Board Member, but also reinforces the strong connection between our city and Latin America. Doris Zemurray Stone, who co-founded Tulane University’s Stone Center for Latin American studies at Tulane University with her husband, Robert Thayer Stone, and was president of the Zemurray Foundation for much of her life was a major visionary behind the Jaguar Jungle, and both of these organizations contributed to the exhibits. An anthropologist raised in New Orleans and daughter of infamous Cuyamel Fruit Company (later sold to United Fruit Company) founder Samuel Zemurray, Stone did significant research and made major contributions to Middle American studies, which is apparent throughout the Jaguar Jungle. Meanwhile it offers an excellent example of how a darker version of our past can be reborn into a vision that offers a cross-cultural experience for folks looking to either find out more about Mayan culture or simply see some jaguars and “criaturas de la noche.”


Just the Facts …

Audubon Zoo Hours (summer): Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Admission: $19.95 for adults; $14.95 for seniors and children
Jaguar Jungle: The Southeast corner or back left corner as you go through the Main Entrance, next to the Louisiana Swamp