Lonely Elephants, Edgy Apes Baffled by Post-Katrina Life at Zoo

By Jennifer Latson, Knight Ridder Newspapers

An AWOL alligator has resurfaced, elephants are forlorn and apes are agitated at Audubon Zoo, one of the nation's most renowned animal sanctuaries, left by Hurricane Katrina both broken and broke.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, General
Curator Dan Maloney feeds giraffes at the
Audubon Zoo in New Orleans.

On the animal side, life is turned upside down. Accustomed to a parade of humanity as part of their habitat, the great apes are wary of the sudden stillness. Suspicious by nature, they have taken to hiding behind bushes, peeking out guardedly whenever workers come by.Panya and Jean, the zoo's two elephants, crave attention. At 5 tons and with flanks hard as concrete, Jean is a puckish entertainer who seems to miss her audience.

She perked up when a National Guard unit set up camp in the parking lot. Whenever the guardsmen visited, she'd come running, says Dan Maloney, Audubon's curator.

"They may have been sneaking her treats. I don't know."

One alligator was missing for nearly two weeks after Katrina. It finally reappeared, probably from a den in its swampy domain where it had hunkered down.

..There are a few less residents to feed; two otters and a raccoon did not survive, and the sea lions were relocated to zoos in Texas because they require such specialized conditions.

Zoo officials will meet next week to discuss when and how to re-open, but that likely won't be before Thanksgiving. That news is likely to disappoint the elephants and orangutans, who are used to interacting with crowds every day.

The two pachyderms, normally used to welcoming hordes of pint-sized visitors and putting on a daily show, entertained National Guardsmen who had camped out in the zoo's front yard. Frosch discovered them hoisting logs and dropping them again and again as the soldiers cheered them on.

Panya and Jean are doing their best to help remove the debris mostly by eating it. Oak leaves and bark are a rare treat for the two Asian elephants, and Hurricane Katrina left them with a smorgasbord.

In the Jaguar Jungle exhibit, the giant bamboo stalks that once shaded a winding stone path have been blown sideways by Katrina's winds. Piles of debris still dot the landscape.

Most of the zoo's residents and a dozen or so key staff members stayed put for Katrina. The caretakers hunkered down in the reptile house, a building designed to withstand a hurricane and serve as a shelter. Food for animals and humans alike had been stockpiled.

"We have been planning for this for years," zoo spokeswoman Sarah Burnette said, adding that Audubon had picked up survival tips from the Miami zoo after Hurricane Andrew

Elephants manager Ellen Frosch was among those who rode out the storm. Though it was windy and rainy, she said she wasn't worried after locking the elephants in their barn and heading to the reptile house. They were soon back to their routine, roaming the zoo in the early hours with their keepers for exercise.

Once the storm blew past, zoos from around the country sent in supplies and are now working on a fundraising campaign for Audubon. As a nonprofit, the zoo relies on the income generated by visitors to feed the animals; the assistance provided was crucial, Burnette said. Panya and Jean alone eat 150 pounds of food per day


The nutrias - known in Cajun country as "nutra rats" - went missing for days. "We were worried they would get eaten by the alligators," said Maloney. Instead, the big swamp rodents scampered back on their own. "A lot of them are young," he said, "and that's where their mothers are."

Abandoned pets patiently await their owners return.