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New Orleans zoo staff do their sleeping, crying at work, official says

Chicago Tribune | September 15, 2005

BY WILLIAM MULLEN

With the vaultlike reptile house serving as a sort of Noah's Ark for humans, 14 keepers at New Orleans' Audubon Zoo rode out Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29. When the storm had passed, they filed out into the ravaged zoo grounds with tranquilizer guns and high-powered rifles, afraid of what they might encounter.

"There was no way of knowing, at that moment, if other buildings were blown down, roofs were off or if trees had fallen into enclosures to let animals out," said Ron Forman, president of New Orleans Nature Institute, which operates the 125-year-old zoo and the city's sparkling new riverfront Aquarium of the Americas.

Set among the now-familiar stories of human tragedy wrought by Katrina along the Gulf Coast, the stories of life and death among the animals told Wednesday in Chicago by Forman and Karyn Noles Bewley, managing director of the city's aquarium, seemed surreal, if no less heart-wrenching.

The two were here at the Hilton Hotel for the opening sessions of the annual meeting of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA), hosted this year by the Shedd Aquarium. About 2,000 zoo officials from around the nation are attending the six-day meeting.

Although its building was barely damaged by Katrina, the aquarium fared much worse than the zoo. In the aftermath of power outages and support system failures, most of its fish died. Many of the aquarium's rarest and most valuable animals did survive, however, including its 19 African blackfooted and rockhopper penguins.

"The penguins marched out of the aquarium on their own to the truck that took them to the airport," Forman said of their evacuation to a temporary home in California's Monterey Bay Aquarium. Their lead keeper cried like a baby as he watched them waddle to the truck, he said.

"We'll see each other one day again soon," he said the keeper called to the birds.

Sitting on high ground, the zoo did not suffer flood damage. But like much of the city, it remains largely cut off from the rest of the world by water covering surrounding lower-lying neighborhoods.

Many of the giant, 200-year-old trees that graced the grounds came down, but no buildings or animals were hit, Forman said. The zoo, while a debris-filled mess, was largely intact, with only two river otters and two birds killed.

"As they went through," he said, "the animals were OK. When the elephants saw them, they started trumpeting, like they were saying `Where have you guys been?'"

A standing ovation washed over Forman Wednesday morning as he stood in clean, borrowed pants and shirt in front of the massed delegates at the AZA meeting. He had flown to Chicago only hours before, his first break from almost nonstop work to shore up his facilities.

Both the zoo and aquarium had longstanding contingency plans for a major hurricane, figuring out staffing and laying in key supplies, he said. Nobody, however, expected the sort of devastation that Katrina brought to the city, particularly from the flooding after breaks in the levee.

The keepers had plenty of stored food and water to keep the animals going, as well as food for themselves - beginning with the good stuff left in zoo concessions, like Haagen Daz ice cream and fresh hamburgers, which went first. Now, he said, they are left with less palatable food stored for emergencies.

Emotionally the toll has been high on the keepers who vowed to tend to the animals even though they knew their own homes were destroyed and weren't certain about the status of their families.

"I watched one keeper crying almost constantly as she cared for the animals," said Forman, "because she knew her parents, elderly aunt and pets ended up stranded on the roof of their house, and she didn't know what had happened to them. I think it took five days before she finally got word that they had been rescued."

With no power, the aquarium kept its life-sustaining water purification systems for its animal pools running with emergency generators, but after five days, the generators proved inadequate. Most of the exhibit fish began dying, said Bewley, "both salt water and fresh water species."

"We put our priority on making sure we saved many of the rare and endangered species of animals that we have," she said, subsequently shipping them out to sister institutions until the aquarium can get its mechanical plant back into working order.

Sixteen days after Katrina, the animals at both the zoo and aquarium continue to be tended by the tiny skeleton crews, but supplies are now coming in regularly, mostly by convoy from Houston, Forman said.

"The people we have at the zoo are living there now," he said. "Their homes are gone. They sleep on cots in the reptile house. I sleep there, and I wake up there with snakes staring through their windows at me. If you don't like snakes, it's not a place to be."

Forman lavished gratitude and praise on Chicago's three AZA members, the Shedd Aquarium and Lincoln Park and Brookfield Zoos, for taking the lead in mustering help for his institutions. The AZA appointed Lincoln Park CEO Kevin Bell to head its emergency fund-raising drive for the Audubon Institute, raising more than $500,000 in little more than ten days from public donations and from AZA's 211 institutional members.

It costs about $1 million a week to operate his institutions, and with the city shut down, there is zero coming in.

"Tourism in New Orleans will not be back to what it was for years. In the short term, we need to raise $25 million for Audubon Nature Institute to keep things going," Forman said, adding he hopes to find major foundation and corporate donors.

 

 

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