On one bank of the river: a New Orleans neighborhood long accustomed to visitors. On the other bank: a zoo of an unusual sort, decidedly not accustomed to visitors. April Blevins Pejic went to explore this unique experiment in wild animal conservation and found herself thinking of her own New Orleans neighborhood, and what changes when you find yourself under the gaze of outsiders.
Just across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter in New Orleans lies a tract of land with the rather generic name Audubon Wilderness Park. A friend and I went out there in spring to look for migratory birds passing through the area, and were shocked when we arrived. The entrance didn’t have the inviting brick sign surrounded by well-tended flowers like Audubon Park in Uptown, but instead had a massive iron gate blocking the road with a speaker box to buzz the guard posted at a small office inside. We weren’t entirely sure we were in the right place as it looked more like a prison entrance than a park.
The guard explained that only a small area of the property is open to the public but we could walk around that area if we followed all the rules. He took our name, address, and license information, and cautioned us to follow the main gravel road to a specific area, and not to make any left turns for any reason. With those warnings and a list of rules that included securing the lock I would find at the entrance to the part of the property open to the public, my friend Melissa and I set off down the long gravel road. Dense forest and old growth trees grew all around us. It was lush and green and would have been beautiful, except the road was lined with tall fences topped with razor wire.
We passed the two roads off to the left the guard warned us about. Each was blocked by a heavy iron gate at least twelve feet tall. I wondered what could possibly necessitate such a large gate, but I shrugged it off when a barred owl flew low across the road in front of us. I was so excited about following the owl that I ignored any discomfort I felt about all the fences and razor wire and what might be behind them.
We found the area he described as safe marked by a sign on a short chain-link fence.
A gated area within a gated area should have concerned me more than it did, but I was excited about migration season and a new birding hotspot and the barred owl I’d just seen on the way in.
Melissa and I doused ourselves in bug spray and took off down the path through the dense woods. We saw a hermit thrush and a hooded warbler, but a rising uneasiness grew with every step we took. Aside from the guard at the property entrance, we hadn’t seen any other people at all. Then, I heard a screech so loud and strange that I immediately thought “pterodactyl.”
“What was that?” Melissa asked. “I’m getting strong ‘Jurassic Park’ vibes out here.”
I was, too. We’d been following the sound of a northern parula and having zero luck spotting it in the high canopy when we heard the unearthly screech again. I also swear I heard a roar. We gave up on the parula and walked quickly back to the car. As we drove back down the gravel road, I saw something move up ahead. When we got within a few feet of it, we realized it was the barred owl. I braked hard. The owl didn’t even flinch. He stayed right where he was in the middle of the road staring at us. We stared at each other for a long moment, Melissa and I watching him watch us, until he finally flew away. It was clear that there was some incredible wildlife here, but it was equally clear that we were on their turf.
Despite its mythic reputation as a hedonist’s paradise, New Orleans is actually a small town. The city is surrounded by water on three sides and by marsh on the other, so it occupies a limited geographical space, but it’s also small in the way that everybody who lives here knows everybody else, or knows somebody who knows somebody. In fact, the population of New Orleans proper is fewer than 400,000 residents, a stark contrast to the roughly 20 million tourists who visit the city every year. The city may feel much larger than it is to those visiting, but to residents it’s a tight community.
In true small-town New Orleans fashion, a few days after my trip with Melissa, I met a guy at a crawfish boil who works at Audubon Wilderness Park. When I relayed my experience, he was surprised that we gained entry at all.
“It felt like ‘Jurassic Park’ out there because it is ‘Jurassic Park,’” he said.
He explained that we’d happened upon the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center. The center is home to the Frozen Zoo, a collection of cryogenically-frozen genetic material from endangered species, and the Alliance Species Survival Center, a joint program between the San Diego Zoo and the Audubon Zoo to promote mating and genetic diversity in endangered populations by giving the animals space to roam and a herd to choose from. It’s essentially a brothel for endangered species. The animals that have been bred at the Species Survival Center include giraffes, okapis, wolves, wildcats, whooping and sandhill cranes, bongos, elands, and yellow-backed duikers. I don’t know which of those animals made the roar that I heard, but the pterodactyl-screeching was likely a crane.
Since Audubon leases the land from the U.S. Coast Guard, and the USCG still has an active communication station on the land, there are government reports detailing the purpose and need for a zoo animal brothel in the driest possible language. One report explains, “The selective pairing of a male and a female of a given species in a traditional zoo enclosure was formerly the accepted method of breeding zoo animals. However, in the long run, zoo personnel learned that matchmaking had its problems and was not overly successful. Often as not, while the pairing looked good from an animal husbandry perspective, one or both animals would show an indifference to the other and the hoped-for romance would never develop. As in natural/wild settings, the use of herds wherein mates, through a selective process, can seek out each other has proven to be a more effective means of breeding for certain species.”
As annoyed as I get at the tourists who can’t even acknowledge me with a wave, I can’t imagine the rage I would feel if it were my ruined home they were gawking at from the plushy seats of an air-conditioned bus.
Aside from having more options for a mate, I’m sure the animals appreciate having privacy, some time to themselves when they aren’t subjected to the gaze of humans. On a trip with my children to the Audubon Zoo a few years ago, the gorillas made a distinct impression on me. One gorilla sat off by himself, motionless and staring at the crowd. I can’t know what the gorilla was thinking, but it struck me that he seemed dejected. A kid nearby had a drink with a straw that he kept pulling out of the cup. He’d fling droplets of water towards the gorillas while his mother scrolled on her phone. The gorilla watched him too, then shifted his posture.
“What’s it doing?” my daughter asked.
I didn’t know. The gorilla watched the little boy fling water and screech. The gorilla held eye-contact with the kid while he defecated.
“Ugh,” my daughter said.
The boy stopped flinging water from his straw while the gorilla scooped up a handful of dung and shoved it in his mouth. The little boy made exaggerated gagging noises and yelled in disgust, but the gorilla just kept staring him down and eating his own feces.
I thought about that gorilla when I read a recent New York Times essay, in which Emma Marris argues that despite zoos’ reputations for education and conservation, it seems morally questionable to keep animals in captivity at all. Marris explains that many zoo animals engage in behaviors that show distress like self-biting or mutilation, exaggerated aggressiveness and infanticide, endlessly repeated movements, and, yes, eating their own feces. Apparently, many zoo animals require mood stabilizers and antidepressants. Marris acknowledges that zoo conservation efforts and breeding programs, like the one at the Species Survival Center, are increasing the population of endangered species, but those species are rarely reintroduced to the wild, and even when they are reintroduced, the wild populations still face the problems of habitat loss that endangered them in the first place.
Habitat loss and feeling the pressure of a constant outsider gaze is a problem New Orleanians can relate to.
After Hurricane Katrina flooded my home Uptown with five feet of water and I lived through the nightmare of the storm’s aftermath, I knew my heart couldn’t take doing it all over again when the next hurricane hit and flooded the city. So I bought a different house, a bright orange shotgun on the highest ground in the city, the Sliver by the River. It had holes in the roof, knob-and-tube electrical wiring, and plumbing that left the inspector shaking his head and tutting about shoddy workmanship. It was ugly and falling apart, but I didn’t care. I brought it up to code. I put a long table in the front parlor so I can look out the floor-to-ceiling windows to the street while I work. I painted the house a light lavender and the shutters a dark navy. I planted camellias out front and enjoyed the quiet neighborhood.
That is, I enjoyed it until the tourists arrived.
For the last ten years, every morning at 11:30 am, a Cajun Encounters tour bus stops in front of my home. The driver always waves when she sees me working at the long table by the window, but the passengers never do. They stare slack-jawed as the guide explains the definition of a camelback shotgun (“a shotgun-style building with a second story rising at the rear”) and points to my house. It is a strange feeling to be on display, to have people pay actual money to someone else for the opportunity to peer in on your life. This particular tour begins in the French Quarter and ends in the Ninth Ward so tourists can see the lasting effects of Katrina. As annoyed as I get at the tourists who can’t even acknowledge me with a wave, I can’t imagine the rage I would feel if it were my ruined home they were gawking at from the plushy seats of an air-conditioned bus.
Habitat loss and fragmentation are threatening biodiversity worldwide. Fragmentation occurs when a habitat gets divided into smaller and more isolated patches, often due to land development or farming. Even though patches of the original habitat remain, fragmentation affects microclimates, pollination, and reduces the abundance of all forms of life within that habitat: plants, insects, birds, and mammals.
In a recent study, researchers used high-resolution satellite imagery to analyze the extent to which fragmentation affects the world’s forests. They found that more than 70 percent of forests globally are within one kilometer of a forest edge. This information, coupled with a meta-analysis of long-term studies on fragmentation revealed that “consistently, all aspects of fragmentation — reduced fragment area, increased isolation, and increased edge — had degrading effects on a disparate set of core ecosystem functions.”
Fragmentation causes genetic bottlenecks and inbreeding by isolating populations. Forest edges create inroads for predatoratory species and hinder plant pollination. Fragmentation can even reduce the nutrient retention of the soil. It’s a lot of bad news for biodiversity and species that are already endangered. Even if we have the ability to increase the populations through breeding from zoo populations or cryogenically frozen embryos, where are they going to live? On display at a zoo?
It used to be that tourists stayed in the French Quarter and didn’t venture outside of that area much. They might ride the streetcar down St. Charles Avenue or to the Garden District for a cemetery tour and dinner at Commander’s Palace, but it was rare to see tourists out en masse in other neighborhoods. The proliferation of short-term rentals flooding the local housing market in the last ten years changed all of that. I can’t tell you how many drunk tourists have had teary break-up arguments while sitting on my stoop, or how many discarded beer bottles I’ve pulled out of the camellias. I am lucky that these mild annoyances are the extent of my troubles. Many local residents are losing their homes.
According to InsideAirbnb, a website that tracks short-term rental data, New Orleans has 6,508 short-term rentals listed, 85 percent of which are whole homes. The city recognized that the short-term rental market was contributing to skyrocketing housing prices and a housing shortage and passed regulations in 2019 to curb the problem. But the complicated and seemingly arbitrary regulations have done little to address the growing problem of resident displacement. In my neighborhood alone, an area that occupies only three-tenths of a square mile, there are 359 short-term rentals listed on Airbnb.
The housing shortage in the city looks particularly problematic when you consider that the city’s largest industry, tourism and hospitality, consists primarily of low-wage jobs. The residents who clean the hotels, or cook and serve in the restaurants and bars are increasingly unable to afford to live here, which is leading to demographic shifts. In 2005 before Katrina hit, New Orleans was 67 percent Black and 27 percent White. The most recent census data (2020) shows the city is 59 percent Black and 34 percent White. These shifting demographics have created tension within the city.
These tensions are perfectly encapsulated in the recent viral fame of the videoed confrontation between a native New Orleanian with deep roots in the community and a woman from Arkansas who used her car to block the street for a house party. In the video, the man tells the woman she can’t block the street without a permit, that elderly neighbors are complaining to him they can’t get to their homes. She asks if he wants a taco. He becomes irate at her dismissiveness and yells obscenities. She moons him. The video touched a nerve in the city because residents are increasingly being displaced from neighborhoods their families have lived in for generations by skyrocketing rents and property taxes, all driven by the short-term rental market.
Other people who attended the crawfish boil assured me there was fantastic birding along the trails but cautioned the bunkers were usually full of snakes.
The city has so heavily commodified the “Do Whatcha Wanna” myth of New Orleans that it hardly seems fair to complain that people have believed it. The city’s new ad campaign features actor Wendell Pierce walking around an empty hotel bar. “We’ve missed you,” he says. “We’ve missed doing what we do best, taking care of friends, old and new. Can I get you something to drink?” he asks as he swirls a cocktail toward the camera. The city absolutely depends on the revenue generated by tourism, which in 2019 was $10 billion, a fact made glaringly apparent by the devastation of long-term shutdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic on the local economy. It is also true that neighborhoods experience cyclical changes of growth and decline. But is it still a neighborhood if it’s functioning as a giant hotel?
Long before the land occupied by the Species Survival Center became Bourbon Street for zoo animals, it was a military installation where ammunition was housed in bunkers during World War II. The bunkers still exist, and are accessible by walking trails along the backside of the Audubon facility in an area called the Woodlands Conservancy. Other people who attended the crawfish boil assured me there was fantastic birding along the trails but cautioned the bunkers were usually full of snakes. Once I knew more, I wanted to see more.
So again, Melissa and I set out across the Mississippi River early one morning to go check out the trails and bunkers. We were prepared for the bugs and snakes. We were not prepared for the wild hogs.
A huge storm a few days before our trip had made a mess of the trail. We had to climb over downed branches and trees as we side-stepped puddles and deep mud. As we walked, we realized we were probably the first people to use the trail since the storm. We saw all kinds of animal tracks in the mud, but no other footprints save our own, which unsettled me.
We had only hiked in about a hundred yards from the trailhead when we came across a mulberry tree heavy with fruit. Birds love mulberries, and I hoped to see maybe an indigo bunting or rose-breasted grosbeak up in the branches. Melissa and I stared through our binoculars when we heard grunts and snorts. We froze.
“Oh my god, is that a wild pig?” Melissa asked. We stood still as we looked in the direction the noise came from. We saw brush moving, but couldn’t see the animal in the dense woods. “Let’s get out of here,” she said.
I still wanted to explore the bunkers. “It’ll be fine,” I said. “It’ll go away. Let’s just wait a minute.”
We stood still and silent. A bird trilled above our heads, but I didn’t dare look up. Melissa and I have encountered all manner of wildlife while birding: raccoons and opossums, deer and armadillos, feral hogs and alligators. I don’t mind coming across alligators sunning themselves, but I do not like feral hogs. Aside from being huge and smart, feral hogs are insanely fast runners, able to swim, and have gored people to death.
“We should make a pig plan. What have you got on you?” I asked.
“Binoculars and a phone,” she said. She pulled out her cell phone to google what to do when encountering wild pigs.
I had a bag of granola and a bottle of bug spray in my pack. “Will pigs eat granola?” I asked. We noticed all the hoof prints around the mulberry tree and decided that pigs who felt territorial about mulberries would probably like granola, too. Melissa grabbed a large stick from the ground at my urging while I got the snacks out in case we needed to throw it as a diversion.
“This is stupid. We should just leave,” Melissa said.
I might have agreed with her, except we had encountered wild hogs before. That time, the pig was pretty far away and skedaddled quickly when it saw us. Probably this one would run away, too. We stayed put until we no longer heard grunts and the woods went still.
“Okay, it’s gone. Let’s keep going,” I said. I took a few tentative steps before I saw the huge pile of fresh dung in the middle of the trail. I pointed it out to Melissa as I stepped around it. We moved slowly and talked so we wouldn’t sneak up on anything. We took a few more cautious steps. “See, this is fine,” I said, though I felt like an interloper in that forest.
Up ahead, the trail turned into a blind curve. I had only just registered that we should be cautious around it when the woods around us erupted in squeals and grunts. The underbrush to the left, right, and in front of us swayed violently.
“That’s it. I’m out,” Melissa said. I agreed, and we hightailed it back to the car where it took us several minutes to regain a normal blood pressure.
As we sat there in the car, shaky and out of breath, I decided it just isn’t worth it. Those animals clearly didn’t want us traipsing through their home. As curious as I am about that wild place and as much as I’d like to see a whooping crane, I don’t need to go back out there. Some areas, I think, are best left to the residents.