Wildlife Paradise in the Louisiana Bayou: A Conversation with Ron Forman, CEO of Audubon Nature Inst

Ron Forman is the longest tenured director of any zoo in the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums, having run the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans for over 40 years. Not only did he turn Audubon into a fantastic zoo but he also helped create the Audubon Nature Institute, which includes the zoo, aquarium, several nature centers and even a wildlife research and breeding center in collaboration with San Diego Zoo Global. Forman’s tenure at Audubon is one of the ultimate zoo success stories and he is revered by his peers. Despite his tenure of four decades, he has no intention to retire anytime soon. “I am kind of blessed,” Forman reflected. “I have great health and my passion is as strong as ever in making a difference in conservation. I love getting up every morning. When you love something so much you keep doing it.”

@ Audubon Nature Institute

When Forman started out, the Audubon Zoo was one of the worst city zoos in the nation and referred to by the New York Times as an “animal ghetto.” “In the 1970s I was a graduate student at Tulane University and the mayor spoke to the school about giving back to the city,” he recalled. “That was back in the fun hippie days, so I thought I could do that for a couple of years. One of the projects I got assigned to do was what to do with the Zoo. It was basically a prison for animals back then. We were told either to shut it down or fix it up. At 24 years old, I was assigned the job by the mayor’s office. When I was 26, I became the assistant director and, when I was 27, I became the director. It was in the worst condition of maybe any zoo in the country so it’s not like I was being handed a world-class institution.”

@ Audubon Nature Institute

It wasn’t uncommon for city zoos to be outdated and in poor condition back then. “With most cities back then the public money had dried up and zoos got the short end of the funding,” Forman explained. “Back then zoos were almost exclusively run by cities and they often didn’t consider them a priority. It was really the ones who went into public-private partnerships that led to the turnaround of a lot of city zoos.” When trying to figure out how to turn around his zoo he sought out the advice of zoo legend Marlin Perkins of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom fame. “When I first started Marlin Perkins was my mentor in trying to help out Audubon,” Forman stated. “He was such a devoted person to the zoo world and he acted as my role model more than anybody else. Over the years I helped him design zoos all around the world. Marlin had a company called Zoo Plan and I was one of the members of his board. Zoo directors like Warren Thomas, Gary Clarke, Bill Braker and myself helped out with Zoo Plan. We helped design the Minnesota Zoo, the Indianapolis Zoo and many others. Zoos were going from very traditional cages to natural habitats. The ugliest word in a zoo is C-A-G-E, so we switched to environments with grass to dig in.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

“All zoos at the time were struggling for a new identity,” Forman reflected. “Putting animals in cages was not the proper way to display animals anymore. We began to talk a lot about education, research and conservation. We had the responsibility to provide better homes for the animals so we gave them room to roam. We’ve changed a lot since then. The real direction right now has to do much more on the conservation and animal welfare side. We continue to evolve as we improve zoos for the future.”

@ Audubon Nature Institute

After being appointed director in 1977, Forman was determined to provide a better life for the zoo’s animals and prove to the people of New Orleans that zoos were still relevant and progressive. “The first thing we did was convince elected officials we could be a much better facility by having a public-private partnership,” he stated. “That was a big step in rebuilding Audubon. There was a big master plan for the zoo and I tried to do something new every year. We did a lot of natural environments and regions for animals. We kept going until we rebuilt the entire zoo. With the success of the zoo, we went from being one of the worst to one of the best. We took the success to help build the Audubon Aquariums of the Americas in 1990. Later we added the Insectarium, Woldenberg Park, the Audubon Louisiana Nature Center, Wilderness Park and other facilities. The zoo is now just one component of living science museums we have dedicated to teaching nature.”

@ Audubon Nature Institute

“One of the first things we did was the new entrance of the zoo,” Forman commented. “We surveyed people coming into the zoo at the old entrance and they rated each exhibit. Then we did the same thing after the new entrance. Suddenly the ratings of the bad exhibits went up even though they hadn’t changed! Building some of the people facilities really changed the impact of the entire zoo experience.”

@ Audubon Nature Institute

One of the first new areas opened at the Zoo was the Asian Domain in 1979, a boardwalk looking out at open habitats for tigers, sun bears, Amur leopards, Asian elephants and other Asian animals. “Before Asian Domain was a collection of small cages inappropriate to house animals,” Forman said. “The theme of Asia was such an important message especially with the elephants, tigers and bears. That was a very popular area of the zoo to rebuild.”

@ Grayson Ponti

Next came World of Primates in 1980. “The primates were in cages for the longest time- absolute prisons,” Forman recalled. “We tore out all the cages and built natural environments with climbing materials, trees to swing on, water and enrichment tools that keep them busy and occupied. They had much better homes.” Additionally, the entire zoo was expanded with the primary goal of building an African section. “The reason we expanded the zoo was to do a savanna where we could create an environment much like you would see in the Serengeti,” he said. “It is designed to have herds of animals.”

@ Grayson Ponti

Not only were the habitats and facilities new but so was the attitude. “The bigger thing was taking the zoo and building the theme of teaching people, particularly children, the importance of nature,” Forman explained. “We have one of the largest collections of institutions dedicated to nature anywhere. Our goal is to bring kids into nature and show them how to protect it. Our kids aren’t going to be able to connect with nature like we did in the past. We need to bridge that gap and make a difference in their life. We build new centers dedicated to nature.”

@ Audubon Nature Center

One of the zoo’s most popular exhibits is the award winning Louisiana Swamp, opened in 1984. “The Louisiana Swamp was very important as it’s a pretty unique geographic region,” he said. “Our swamp areas are disappearing through wetland loss. We’re losing one of the most important ecosystems in the world only fifty miles away. When we show what a swamp looks like and do that effectively, it makes a difference in inspiring people to help that ecosystem.”

@ Audubon Nature Institute

“When we built the Louisiana Swamp, we started off with the easy part- we had the climate and the habitat right here,” Forman added. “It’s easy to grow the cypress trees, palmettos and swamp plants here.” While the region features a variety of wildlife from the swamp, the stars are the American alligators. “As we all know, the American alligator almost became extinct in the 1970s," Forman remarked. "So we talk about how people came together and brought them back. We talk about the need to provide healthy swampland. The public really enjoys being in that environment and it’s probably one of our most popular exhibits.”

@ Grayson Ponti

In recent years, the Louisiana Swamp has become even better. “We added a nursery for swamp plants and animals, which was sponsored by the New Orleans Pelicans,” Forman said. “They did a program with us to save wetlands. We also added an indoor space for the rare white alligators. They’re really iconic in the Louisiana Swamp, so we talk about how they are a part of our folklore. Our white alligator was getting so big we had to give him a much larger space.”

@ Audubon Nature Institute

One of the Audubon Zoo’s specialties is reptiles. “We’re in a climate that has a large collection of reptiles living naturally in the marsh,” Forman explained. “For instance, we have the Louisiana pine snake, which are just about extinct. We are one of the leaders in breeding that species and releasing them back into the wild. We don’t take animals out, we put them back in. We’re working on releasing many reptiles back to their natural environment. Our hope with the exotics is strictly for the next generation who we hope are smarter than we are. We see signs of that happening more and more around the world but we still have a lot to do. We need to make sure we have these species left for the next generation. We work everyday so we can provide homes for these animals. Right now we’re working with the whooping crane in Louisiana to release them into the wild.”

@ Audubon Nature Institute

“There was a big effort to make sure our local community had pride and ownership in the Zoo,” Forman stated. “Our support, membership and funding went way up because of that ownership. With education we’ve really gone into the school system and shown them the importance of saving nature. We teach people running for government in New Orleans that if you want to get elected you better hug an animal because our citizens are so passionate about what we do. They need to know the important of running our institution. Nothing is better than seeing a kid go in scared and come out wanting to hug an animal.”

@ Audubon Nature Institute

Forman said he recognizes the importance of the Zoo continuing to stay relevant and modern in an evolving world. “You’ve got to change with the world,” he reflected. “The Zoo can go two ways: up or down. It can’t stay the same. You’re always looking for ways to make what you have better. There are some people who don’t like zoos and our job is to show them the role zoos and aquariums play in protecting wildlife. We have such an important role particularly in helping people. I don’t think anyone does a better job in animal welfare than zoos. To our keepers, the animals are their family. We need to talk more about the important work our keepers do. Natural habitats are important as they provide more stories to talk about an animal’s mental and physical sides and find what provides the best interaction through exhibitry and enrichment. Our animal welfare improves with research on how to care for animals. The zoo of the future is more and more changing into a place where conservation, education, research and animal welfare come together. It’s still a fun place to go but it has those elements too.”

@ Audubon Nature Institute

Another crucial element to zoos is the building and sharing of knowledge. “Through interactions with other zoos and universities, we learn something new each day,” Forman stated. “We share our intelligence with others. We want them to use that same learning experience to help each other and implement these programs. We started with the success of the zoo and took that support to the middle of the city to build the aquarium. At the same time as we got better we thought why don’t we build a collection of science museums on the Mississippi River. We added things like the Insectarium and Imax Theater. We have a major economic impact, made a big difference in our community and left a strong conservation impact.“

@ Audubon Nature Institute

The zoo is known for its strong representation of wildlife from Latin America. It has two areas devoted to distinct environments from the region: South American Pampas and Jaguar Jungle. “New Orleans has a great relationship with Central and South America,” Forman explained. “A lot of New Orleans residents come from that area. Like the Louisiana Swamp, we tried to recreate the natural habitats of the Americas. We made beautiful exhibits- as much a botanical garden as a space for animals. We put a lot of emphasis on Mayan culture and architecture. We’ve had big success interacting with the Latin American community.”

@ Grayson Ponti

The city of New Orleans was devastated in August 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. “Katrina was our biggest natural disaster,” Forman remembered. “The Zoo was on high land so it wasn’t impacted that much. Our staff was well prepared, stayed on the grounds and did an incredible job protecting the animals. However, Katrina impacted the Aquarium as the electricity was off for a long time so we lost a lot of fish. It was a tough time for the community and our economy. Now tourism is back and our city and zoo is prospering more than ever.”

@ Audubon Nature Institute

Recently ,the Audubon Zoo completed the renovation and expansion of Asian Domain. The Asian elephant habitat was too small and not up to modern standards. In order to provide for their welfare and be able to keep the large mammals at the Zoo, Audubon built a brand new facility for them adjacent to their old home. “We’ve dramatically increased the space available for our elephants,” Forman explained. “We now have over an acre of land for them with beautiful landscaping and a great pool.”

@ Audubon Nature Institute

@ Audubon Nature Institute

Unlike many modern elephant exhibits opened in recent years which have focused on building breeding herds, the Audubon Zoo chose to focus on geriatric Asian elephants to give them a great retirement home. “Since we have older elephants, we designed the facility so we can give cutting edge care for them and help them live comfortably in their older years,” Forman said. The Zoo not only built a grassy outdoor yard with plenty of enrichment opportunities but also a brand new barn designed for modern-day elephant husbandry. Visitors can look out at a beautiful panorama from a boardwalk with many interpretive graphics and displays educating them about Asian elephant conservation.

@ Audubon Nature Institute

The decision was made to transform the old elephant habitat into a more dynamic and stimulating environment for orangutans, formerly housed in the World of Primates. “The orangutans have a lot more opportunities to climb,” Forman remarked. “We really did the whole design on giving natural tree plantings, ropes and a much larger environment for them to act naturally.” It is a perfect environment to see the red apes active and, as with the elephants, interpretive graphics educate visitors about the conservation of these animals in the wild.

@ Audubon Nature Institute

@ Audubon Nature Institute

At the heart of everything the Audubon Nature Institute does is conservation. “A zoo’s values have to put conservation at the very top,” Ron Forman elaborated. “We work very closely on the Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) program with the AZA and the Species Survival Plans (SSP.) When we work together as a collective of zoos, we can do great things. I’m really proud of what we’ve done for the whooping crane. It was on the brink of extinction and we’re one of the institutions that helps bring them back. We did a similar thing with sandhill cranes. At our survival center we hatch a lot of birds to reintroduce them into the wild.”

@ Audubon Nature Institute

“At the same time, we’re working on the Gulf United for Lasting Fisheries (G.U.LF.) program,” he continued. “We learned about the economics of fishermen and how the resources available to bring them back would bring a lot of money to protect the Gulf of Mexico. If the fisheries are healthy, the Gulf is healthy. We raise money to protect the Gulf and the wetlands not just to protect the fisheries but a very fragile ecosystem. We also do a lot with the rehabilitation of sea turtles.”

@ Audubon Nature Institute

Having spent $400 million on capital projects over the past four decades, the Audubon Nature Institute has no desire to slow down. “Next year Phase II of Jaguar Jungle will open at the Zoo,” Forman said. “The biggest part of it will be a nocturnal house with small mammals and bats. There will also be a fossil dig site and an expanded jaguar breeding area. The year after, we will be bringing back lions to the Zoo in the African Savanna region and will be doing a new African exhibit almost every year for awhile. At the Aquarium we’re doing a major redo of the shark encounter that will talk about how the most dangerous animal in the water is man.”

@ Audubon Nature Institute

Recently, Audubon Nature Institute and San Diego Zoo Global have formed a partnership called the Alliance for Sustainable Wildlife. Located on the grounds of the 400-acre Audubon Species Survival Center, the two institutions collaborate to breed threatened mammals and birds and do cutting edge research. “This’ll be a model for our zoos and allows us to expand our programs,” Forman explained.

@ Audubon Nature Institute

Ron Forman expressed great pride and passion about what he’s done with the Audubon Zoo. “The thing that makes us special is we took a bad zoo, and with that built 10 world-class facilities,” he reflected. “All of them are top quality facilities dedicated to a clear vision for conservation. We teach young people the importance of nature and how they live their lives in relation to it. We hope their generation will be better. If we can impact three million visitors each year for forty years, that’s a lot of great conservation leaders. On a good day I might see a giraffe being born. On a tough day I might get hugged by a bunch of kids and have them thank me. I’m sharing my love of nature with others, which bring great joy to me. If we can make a difference and help make the world a better place, that’s worthwhile.”

@ Audubon Nature Institute

#AudubonZoo

You Might Also Like:
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
0824BZ_3117TA
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
maruska
charlie
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-post/2017/05/14/A-Life-Devoted-to-the-ModernConservation-Zoo-A-Cons
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-post/2017/08/03/Connecting-People-to-Living-Things-in-an-Emotional-

I'm a 23-year old wildlife enthusiast, conservation and animal welfare advocate, environmental activist and zoo fanatic who aspires to work in zoo public relations or education. I am here to share some insight into the world's best zoos to show all the great things they are doing. 

 

About Me
Search by Tags
No tags yet.

© 2017 by Grayson Ponti