The Audubon family of nature sites and facilities began with Audubon Park – once home to Native Americans – and later, to New Orleans' first mayor, Étienne de Boré. He founded the nation's first commercial sugar plantation here, when New Orleans was still part of Spanish colonial Louisiana; and developed its first granulated sugar through a process invented by Norbert Rillieux, a local free man of color.
The land did not fall into public hands until 1850, when a philanthropist willed it to the city. During the US Civil War, the location alternately hosted a Confederate military camp and a Union hospital. In 1866, it was the activation site for the 9th Cavalry Regiment, the "Buffalo Soldiers," whose defense of the United States' western frontier made an indelible mark on America's African-American heritage.
Site improvements made for the World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition of 1884 (Louisiana's first World's Fair) laid the foundation for an urban park. The city had designated the land for this purpose in 1871; and in 1886, city planners changed the park's name from Upper City Park to Audubon Park. This was in tribute to artist/naturalist John James Audubon who painted many of his famed Birds of America in Louisiana.
A governing board was appointed by the city in 1894 to find the best way to develop the land; and by the turn of the century, development had been entrusted to landscape architect John Charles Olmsted. Olmsted's family firm had risen to prominence for its design of New York City's Central Park, and New Orleanians soon watched their own scenic retreat materialize from Louisiana swamp land.
The Audubon Commission was established by State Act in 1914 to maintain and develop Audubon Park. A flight cage was added to the park in 1916, and its popularity launched the community's call for a full-scale zoo. Community leaders united as the New Orleans Zoological Society, and (in a tradition carried on today) private donations soon funded a monkey cage, a mammal cage and a deer paddock. The first elephant, purchased by Louisiana schoolchildren, arrived in 1924. An aquarium and a colonnaded sea lion pool fueled the momentum, and by 1929, the collection boasted hundreds of animals.
When the Depression of the 1930s shut down private donations, the city's hope for a zoo was kept alive by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). This federal agency funded construction of new zoo buildings, and in 1938, a $50,000 bequest from local benefactor Valentine Merz enabled the opening of the Merz Memorial Zoo.
Expensive to maintain and operate, the Merz facility held its own until the 1950s. Deterioration followed as city appropriations dwindled, private donations dried up and public interest waned. There were a few bright moments (including the 1956 arrival of the first endangered whooping crane hatched in a zoo), but times were mostly bad. Blasted by the media as an animal "ghetto" in 1958 and urged to "clean up or close up" by the Humane Society of the United States in 1970, the Zoo—now called Audubon Zoo—begged recovery.
Recovery finally came through the efforts of devoted community volunteers, and a remarkable public/private collaboration through the Audubon Commission. In 1972 the Commission spearheaded passage of a special referendum which generated nearly $2 million in bonds to finance the beginning of the Zoo's restoration. The volunteers formally rallied as Friends of the Zoo, and in 1973, Ron Forman—the City Hall Liaison for Audubon Park—came on board with a grand vision that evolved into a new master plan for the Zoo. Forman and the Audubon Commission expanded the Zoo to its current 58 acres, allowing for sweeping natural habitats that mirrored wild environments: the African Savanna, North American Grasslands and the South American Pampas. Other new adventures included a Children's Zoo and a World of Primates exhibit. Audubon Zoo's Phoenix-like rise led to accreditation from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association in 1981. Industry peers were further impressed by the 1984 debut of the Louisiana Swamp Exhibit. Its unprecedented exhibit style not only displayed native animals in a stunningly realistic environment, it used cultural elements to capture the lifestyle of the Cajun people who have endeared Louisiana's swamplands to the world.
Audubon's incredible turnaround set a new benchmark for zoo exhibits—and New Orleans success stories. Most importantly, the Zoo's rebirth firmly anchored Audubon among the nation's top-rated zoological parks and inspired support for future developments that would benefit the city culturally—and economically. By the mid-1980s, Audubon was lobbying for an exciting new educational resource that would highlight aquatic habitats while reintroducing New Orleanians to their own, legendary Mississippi River. Where decaying warehouses blocked public access to the river's banks, Ron Forman, his team, and their supporters envisioned a lush community park with a sparkling centerpiece: Audubon Aquarium of the Americas.
Vision became reality as local citizens overwhelming approved a millage to service $25 million in bonds to fund construction of the Aquarium and Woldenberg Riverfront Park. The project not only set a new, broader course for Audubon. It promised the city a much-needed family attraction that could drive its tourism industry to new heights.
Woldenberg Park opened in 1989, the same year the Friends of the Zoo evolved into Audubon Nature Institute. The Aquarium followed in 1990, drawing huge crowds for its Labor Day opening. Four months later, the facility had already exceeded its first-year attendance projections. And Audubon Nature Institute was ready, once again, to leverage its success for new achievements.
In the next decade, Audubon Nature Institute adopted an ambitious new mission incorporating wildlife conservation, science education, and family entertainment. New ways to captivate and educate visitors emerged. The Aquarium expanded into a new wing housing Entergy IMAX® Theatre and a Changing Exhibits Gallery, while Woldenberg Park also extended its borders. The Zoo 2000 master plan saw completion through the addition of the CNG (now Dominion) Learning Center; engaging new exhibits (e.g. Komodo dragons and Jaguar Jungle); the state-of-the-art Columbia Animal Healthcare Center; and a grand new entrance befitting a world-class zoo.
Audubon Louisiana Nature Center joined the growing family in a 1994 merger and later developed new educational programs for Audubon Wilderness Park, a private West Bank preserve which would welcome schoolchildren and other scheduled groups to discover native animals and habitats.
Through each new development, the family birthplace—Audubon Park—has endured as a much-loved community resource that combines habitat preservation with human pastimes. The extensive 2002 renovation of its historic Golf Course shaped beautiful new vistas enjoyed by all park users who, like generations before them, embrace the site as a center of New Orleans life.
Innovation remained a guiding force as Audubon Nature Institute sought to grow its commitment to wildlife conservation—on a global scale. With successful breeding programs already in place at the Zoo and the Aquarium, Audubon addressed the critical need for additional population management space with the 1993 opening of Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center. Unique in the world, the campus combines research laboratories with acres of pristine natural habitat where rare and endangered animals can roam and reproduce. Exotic wildcats, Mississippi sandhill cranes, whooping cranes, saddlebill storks, and other vanishing animals find sanctuary and flourish on these grounds, while scientists on-site at Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species wield assisted reproduction technologies in the war against wildlife extinction.
Employing vital partnerships with universities, government agencies and other conservation-dedicated organizations, the Research Center team continues to earn international renown through amazing achievements. These include the world's first African wildcat clones; the first caracal cat created from a frozen-thawed embryo; the first African serval wildcat born as a result of in vitro fertilization; and a "Frozen Zoo," which preserves the genetic material of hundreds of diminishing animal species—ensuring their survival in the future.
Audubon Nature Institute added an exciting new branch to the family tree on June 13, 2008—Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium. Located in the historic U.S. Custom House in downtown New Orleans, the Butterfly Garden and Insectarium was the first major new attraction to open in the city since Hurricane Katrina.
The Butterfly Garden and Insectarium celebrates the world of bugs with 13 gallery rooms containing more than 70 live animal enclosures, 30 mounted specimen cases and a multi-sensory immersive theater experience. There are about 100 live arthropod species throughout as well as a variety of fish. Visitors can experience live insect encounters, discover cultural aspects of insects, sample exotic insect cuisine, shrink in size to see the world from a bug's perspective, and enjoy the tranquility of a Japanese garden while watching hundreds of butterflies flit about.
This one-of-a-kind interactive experience is another "living classroom" designed to show how human lives are affected by nature—and what we all stand to lose without careful stewardship of its every, treasured resource.
Constantly attuned to local needs, Audubon Nature Institute shapes its myriad programs to benefit our community at all levels, from providing much-needed educational resources to nurturing economic development.
Audubon educators collaborate with public school teachers and administrators to help fill a science education void created by funding shortfalls. Afterschool programs, teacher training sessions, field trip enrichment programs and family learning opportunities are staged at all of Audubon's public facilities, including the Zoo's Jeri and Robert Nims Community Center. Outreach vehicles, learning kits, and other initiatives extend Audubon's teaching arm directly into area classrooms—programs like the Internet-based WILD-LAB curriculum or Coast to Classroom widen that reach still more.
Ensuring that all community members enjoy access to Audubon Nature Institute is an ongoing priority achieved through summer discounts made available to students in financially disadvantaged schools; minority hiring initiatives; vendor policies that ensure opportunities for Economically Disadvantaged Businesses (EDB); and celebration of the city's great cultural diversity through such Audubon-hosted events as Soul Fest, Black History Month activities and the Asian Pacific-American Festival.
The Audubon Nature Institute continues to play a vital role in the local economy as well. With more than $250 million in capital investments, a $40 million annual budget, a workforce of more than 600 employees, and the generation of $19 million in local and state sales taxes each year, Audubon has an annual economic impact of $330 million. This is an amazing return on investments made in the Audubon vision by generations of supporters—and a remarkable accomplishment for an organization that, unlike its peers, receives little or no city or state funding for day-to-day operations.
The 2005 Hurricane Katrina caused substantial physical destruction, wiped out all Audubon operating revenues and forced the layoff of nearly 600 employees. Nonetheless, Aquarium staff remained at their posts throughout the storm, as well as the subsequent flooding, doing what they could for the animals in their charge.
The institute was the executive producer of "Hurricane on the Bayou", an IMAX film released on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's landfall in 2006.
The institute is no longer a part of the National Wetlands Coalition, but it is a "cooperating organization" with America's Wetland Campaign, which is sponsored by British Gas, Citgo, ConocoPhillips, Shell Oil and other leading energy companies.