Zoo and Aquarium in New Orleans Weather Hurricane Ida Safely

By Doug MacCash | September 13, 2021

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Bob Lessnau, the Audubon Zoo’s curator of animals, rode out Hurricane Ida with 35 staff members at the Uptown New Orleans institution. When the power went out, generators provided emergency electricity. It was a tense few hours, as the wind and rain roared past.

“You just have to wait it out, with the anticipation and the anxiety that builds,” Lessnau said.

Yet all the animals survived at both the zoo and at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas on the downtown riverfront — and one even gave birth during the storm. No reopening date has been set for either attraction.

Lessnau said the zoo animals were secured inside enclosures for Ida — or at least most were. At the height of the Aug. 29 hurricane, a Barasingha deer escaped through a collapsed fence. Lessnau said staff members set out to retrieve the animal, “but it was too hazardous to be out in the elements.”

After the wind eased, staff found the deer “hunkered down in some brush.” A native of Nepal, the creature is known as a swamp deer. So, Lessnau said, it is at home in south Louisiana conditions.

As staff surveyed the zoo grounds, they discovered downed trees and branches but little other conspicuous damage.

Lessnau said that one of the first priorities was to be sure that “all of our code red dangerous animals were accounted for and secure.” The designation includes everything from lions to rhinoceroses. After that, the crew examined the animals’ outdoor pens, which were intact.

Within 48 to 72 hours of Ida’s departure, Lessnau said, the animals were returned to their outdoor environments. Power was restored to the zoo relatively quickly, but there’s been at least one “mini-blackout” since, he said.

Asked how the animals reacted to the storm, Lessnau said he thinks they “have a perception of changes in their environments,” but none of the creatures seemed to exhibit “evidence of stress.”

“They’ve adapted to the New Orleans environment,” he said. “They probably do better than most people.”

Lessnau was quick to thank the zoo’s animal keepers and maintenance workers, who set their private lives aside to ensure the safety of their wards. “And all of this on top of a pandemic,” he said. “I applaud our staff for enduring during this challenging time.”

At the aquarium, a 17-person emergency crew also weathered Hurricane Ida. The heavy winds caused minor damage to some windows surrounding the Amazon Exhibit, but otherwise the striking building survived, as did the collection of water creatures inside.

Though commercial power failed at the aquarium during the storm, as it did throughout southeast Louisiana, emergency generators compensated, sustaining the aquatic displays. “We were extremely happy about how all of the systems worked,” said Katie Smith, the Audubon Institute’s vice president of marketing.

“There was no loss that I’m aware of,” Smith said. On the contrary, a cownose ray gave birth Aug. 29 to a pup, which was _ naturally _ named Ida.

News of the survival of all the many species at the aquarium will be a particular relief to New Orleanians who recall the catastrophe that befell the attraction during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Circumstances in the flooded city forced the emergency staff to abandon the building, which resulted in the death of most of the collection.

To avoid the possibility of a similar occurrence, the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center, a facility for propagating threatened animals, located on the west bank of New Orleans, shipped 24 cownose rays and one zebra shark to the Mississippi Aquarium and the Institute of Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport Mississippi. The management of the Survival Center evacuated the marine species on Sept. 3 because the facility was then operating on limited generator power in the aftermath of the Aug. 29 storm.

Evacuation is an emergency option in response to conditions after a hurricane, but the Audubon Institute does not transport animals away from the potential path of tropical weather. “Storms can shift and we do not want to unnecessarily stress the animals in our care,” Smith said. “Staying at our facilities is the best option.”

Smith said there’s no timetable for reopening the zoo or aquarium to the public at this time. She predicts the aquarium will be ready to receive guests sooner than the zoo.

About Doug MacCash

MacCash wrote this for The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate.

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