Expansive New Home for Elephants Debuts at Audubon Zoo
Panya and Jean, the beloved Asian elephants at Audubon Zoo, are inviting visitors to their new home to see them like they've never been seen before.
The sprawling new elephant habitat, which celebrated its official opening on Tuesday, April 26, provides plenty of space for the two female pachyderms to roam and features an elevated education pavilion with covered seating for visitors to view them from a variety of locations.
New Orleans City Councilwoman Susan Guidry, Audubon officials and students from Kingsley House were on hand with Panya, 52, and Jean, 43, to mark the occasion.
The elephants have been star attractions at Audubon Zoo for 30-plus years. Jean arrived in 1978 and Panya came in 1980. They are considered best friends.
The education pavilion - anchored by an engaging, Asian-themed interpretive center where zoo education staffers will hold interpretations and chats - was paid for, in part, with a $1 million gift from New York real estate developer Jeffrey Feil.
"The unique design of this new exhibit offers spectacular vantage points to view two of the most treasured members of the Audubon Zoo family, 'For visitors, the education pavilion serves as both a comfortable place to take a break as well as a classroom to learn about one of the animal kingdom's most fascinating species.''
A decorative awning extends over the pavilion's boardwalk where visitors will enjoy games and activities designed to increase knowledge of Asian culture, including an iPad-based "video coloring book'' that can create elephant paintings.
A series of graphics offers lessons about the important role elephants have played in Indian culture and history and how they have become the most illustrated animal in nature. Other topics include "elephants in Buddhism,'' how elephants have worked closely with humans for centuries and the prominent role elephants play in Indian myth and story telling.
Other illustrations provide information on elephant conservation organizations which provide funds for ending the sale and trade of ivory and elephant products, raising awareness and educating the public and training veterinarians. Another graphic provides a primer on how deforestation tied to development, commercial agriculture, livestock grazing and other human activity is posing a threat to Asian elephants in the wild.
Wooden benches are positioned inside the pavilion, offering visitors an opportunity to relax while looking out at the new elephant enclosure and its gentle, contoured inclines, shade trees, an "enrichment tree'' that allows the elephants to forage for food and two elephant pools: a shallow pool near the pavilion and a 12-foot-deep immersion pool close to the Cool Zoo water park.
Funding for the elephant habitat was provided, in part, by the state of Louisiana's capital outlay program, though the Division of Administration Facilities Planning and Control office.
"I'd like to thank our partners in Baton Rouge for helping make this attraction a reality,'' said Audubon Commission President J. Kelly Duncan. "We have always appreciated the support of our state government, specifically the Greater New Orleans legislative delegation. We couldn't have completed this project without their leadership.''
In a corner of the water park, guests can feel like they are splashing with the elephants in the Gottesman Elephant Wading Pool. Sponsored by longtime Audubon supporter Charlotte Gottesman and her family, a Plexiglass partition separates a wading area for children and the elephants' pool.
"As we get older, we all know how important staying active is to our long-term health, and the same is true of elephants,'' said Audubon Zoo Vice President and General Curator Joel Hamilton, "An exciting aspect of this new habitat is the large pool that will allow Panya and Jean to submerge themselves and take a daily swim. Exercise is important for any elephant in our care and swimming is one of the best kinds.''
The Betty Wisdom Elephant Barn opened in 2013. Betty Wisdom was an avid supporter of the Zoo and served on the Audubon Commission for 23 years.
The barn closely resembles the Works Progress Administration (WPA)-style architecture of the iconic barn that debuted to much fanfare in the late 1930's in what was then known as the Merz Memorial Zoo. The old elephant barn has been retrofitted and now houses the Zoo's orangutan collection.
Notably, the elephant barn, which features heated, padded floors, is designed to house up to four elephants. Audubon Zoo officials plan to acquire at least one more elephant in the future to join Panya and Jean. The barn is designed with older animals in mind, outfitted with modern features to better manage potential health issues as the elephants age.
The elephant habitat is part of a major redesign of the Asian Domain, now known as Asia, that includes the new orangutan habitat, the white tiger exhibit, Bambu Village Asian Discovery Trail and the soon-to-open barasingha deer exhibit.