November 25, 2005

Reopened zoo brings New Orleans a hint of normality

By Janet Guttsman

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Visitors streamed into New Orleans'
Audubon Zoo as it opened on Friday for the first time since
Hurricane Katrina, bringing a hint of normality to a city still
shattered, shuttered and largely depopulated by the storm.

By the zoo's scheduled 10 a.m. opening time, some 1,000
parents and children were lined up outside the gates of the
120-year-old facility, peering in at gaudy pink flamingos on
view just inside. By noon, the lawns and paths were packed.

"This is part of bringing this city back to normal again,"
said Alaina Vizcarrondo, who had been a twice-a-week visitor
before Katrina and brought her 3-year-old son, Kevin, on Friday
to see his favorite animals. "We've been waiting for the zoo to
open again."

The zoo, one of the oldest and best known in North America,
emerged as one of the happy stories of Katrina, the powerful
storm that killed more than 1,000 people in Louisiana alone
when it hit August 29.

Just three of the zoo's 1,500 animals were killed -- two
young otters that died of stress and a female raccoon that

The hurricane snapped off branches and uprooted trees
across the park. But while branches and bamboo still hang
haphazardly over some enclosures, the bulk of the debris from
Katrina somehow fell without causing major damage to zoo
buildings or the animals' enclosures.

Eighty percent of New Orleans was inundated after the storm
breached protective levees but the zoo was spared from the
floodwaters because it is located on high ground.

"Our CEO, Ron Forman, must be the luckiest man out there
and he was lucky this time. The trees fell the right way,"
curator Dan Maloney told Reuters in an interview interrupted
repeatedly by greetings to visiting families and diversions to
pick up cups or papers and deposit them in trash cans.


Maloney and a handful of other zoo staff waited out the
storm in the windowless Reptile House, a sturdy brick building
at the edge of the zoo.

"We had always known we had to be ready to look after
ourselves after a hurricane because the authorities would be
looking after the people and all that preparation paid off,"
Maloney said.

But he admitted things were uncertain in the first days
after the storm, when both power and water failed and staff
could hear shooting from the chaotic city.

At one time the staff prepared a quarantine facility to be
used as a holding cell for anyone caught trespassing on the
property "until the police arrived" but Maloney said they never
had to use it.

The zoo, the downtown Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and
the nearby IMAX theater, were among the busiest tourist
attractions in Louisiana before the hurricane hit.

The zoo is the only one of the three operating right now,
and the shrunken customer base in an eerily empty city means it
will be open only on weekends until the spring.

The aquarium lost 10,000 out of 12,000 creatures when power
failed and filthy water could not be replaced. It will be
closed at least until the summer.

Tourists have yet to return to New Orleans, once a city of
almost half a million, and large parts of the city are still
uninhabited and uninhabitable.

"You may have 30,000 or 40,000 people sleeping in New
Orleans right now and I wouldn't be surprised if 40,000 show up
at the zoo this weekend," Forman said.

"The city of New Orleans was a thriving, beautiful, unique
city and overnight the city was destroyed," he said. "It became
a city without children. But people are coming back now for
Thanksgiving and we had to do everything we can to open the zoo
and to bring the families back."