The Alexandria Zoo was established by the city in 1922 in Bringhurst Park as a simple row of cages, constructed of chain link fence and iron bars, with very little vegetation planted near the exhibits. Celebrating its Centennial this year, it opened to the public in 1926 as a free exhibit. Little of that original infrastructure remains in the modern day Zoo. Additional cages, including a sea lion pool, were added in the 1940s.
While there is anecdotal evidence that, over the years, the zoo once housed a chimpanzee and buffalo, the zoo’s early collection was mostly comprised of discarded pets such as rabbits and goats, and native species like deer and alligators. In fact, for several decades, the alligator space included the open end of a city sewerage drain. There is scarce documentation for the early years at the Zoo, but the facility seems to have remained largely unchanged until the 1970s.
Since its founding, the Zoo has operated under the Public Works Division of the City of Alexandria. With the passage of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) by Congress in 1966, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) began to regulate the treatment of animals in research, teaching, testing, exhibition, transport, and by dealers.
The conditions at the Zoo at the time were, to put it mildly, less than ideal. The new, federally mandated AWA standards threatened the very existence of the Zoo at the time. This increased scrutiny by the USDA prompted City Commissioner O’Hearn Mathews to appoint the first zoo committee. That committee has evolved into the Friends of the Alexandria Zoo (FOTAZ), the current support organization for the zoo, charged with enabling the growth and maintenance of the facility.
Realizing that the management of a zoological park was beyond the expertise of a City Park Superintendent, a search began for a dedicated zoo director. Then-Zoo veterinarian Dr. David McGraw recommended a young animal care professional named Les Whitt from whom the Zoo had previously acquired a Sun Bear and a Cinnamon-phase Black Bear. Les arrived in 1974, having been hired by the last elected City of Alexandria Streets and Parks Commissioner, Malcolm P. Hebert, and thus, a “golden age” of the Alexandria Zoo officially began.
A native of Natchez, Mississippi, Les was a life-long animal lover, conservation advocate, and blues musician. From his teenage years, he was a member of the American Zoological Parks and Aquarium Association, the precursor to the modern Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), serving in multiple roles for the organization over the years. With his wealth of experience, he knew the task before him was daunting. He assessed the facility as he found it to be in such “bad shape that it should be closed down.”
Les started making major changes to the zoo as soon as was hired. The zoo had a surplus of whitetail deer and several old tigers and lions that were retired from a circus. “Many of the animals were diseased and old. We got rid of about 35 percent of the animal collection when I moved here,” Les recalled in 2005. The changes allowed Les to bring a lot of his own animals with him, which he donated to the zoo, including jaguars, cougars, wolves, and an alligator named Moease.
Under Les and his wife LeeAnn’s direction, the Alexandria Zoo enjoyed a sustained period of growth and advancement that lasted four decades. Through the Whitts’ dedicated, tireless efforts, the Alexandria Zoo received its official AZA accreditation in 1986 and has maintained that distinction ever since. “AZA accreditation is not easy to get and it is very hard to maintain. There are only three AZA accredited facilities in Louisiana. Our zoo, the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, and the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, also in New Orleans,” said Alexandria Mayor Jeff Hall. “The standards we have to operate here are the same standards as Audubon, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and San Diego,” explains current Zoo Director Dr. Max Lakes. “We have to meet those same standards.”
During their tenure, the Whitts oversaw exponential growth in the footprint of the Zoo. The former Fun Land, a collection of carnival style rides, was retired to make room for additional habitat expansion. A new entrance was constructed to handle the increased number of visitors that were attracted by those expansions over the years, which, under the Whitts’ direction, eventually grew to include the Louisiana Habitat, Festival Plaza, Australian Walkabout, Land of the Jaguar and the first phase of the African Experience.
Les was committed to the Alexandria Zoo and the Central Louisiana community. He served the Zoo and the wider community for the rest of his life, until his death in 2008 at just 56 years old. Animal expert and Zookeeper extraordinaire, Jack Hanna, boasted of his friend, “[Les] could have run any zoo in the country, but he loved [Alexandria]. He loved the people there.” In the years that followed, LeeAnn stepped into the role of Zoo director, continuing to build upon the accomplishments she and Les had overseen.
The end of an era at the Zoo came on September 1, 2020 when LeeAnn officially retired from her position as Zoo Director, after four decades of service as a volunteer, secretary, education director, then director. Les and LeeAnn left a lasting legacy that took the Zoo from a small menagerie in disrepair and in danger of closure to one of the most lauded AZA zoological parks in the country for a city of any size, but certainly for one the size of Alexandria. It is home to over 500 animals representing 150 different species. “Around the AZA, we’re known as ‘the Directors Zoo’,” explains Max. “The reason for that is that we have a lot of species that you don’t find at other zoos, including a lot of smaller, unique, and endangered animals.” Even with so much already accomplished, LeeAnn left the zoo with hope for the future. “You know, I really want to believe that the best years are yet to come because there are a lot of things on the drawing board.”
As the Zoo looks forward to its second hundred years, it does so under the leadership of Dr. Max Lakes, who succeeded LeeAnn as Director in November 2020. Max jumped at the chance to lead the Alexandria Zoo. “Finding a gem of a zoo like this was absolutely amazing and a great opportunity,” he says. A native of Lexington, Kentucky, Max spent much of his formative years in the Cincinnati, Ohio area. He comes to the Alexandria Zoo by way of the Lee Richardson Zoo in Kansas with a philosophy grounded in mission. “All zoos need to be conservation education centers,” Max explains. “We work to bring about pro-conservation behaviors and actions.” The zoo staff works to achieve this goal by creating entertaining, educational, and empathetic interactions between guests and animals of various different species and origins, and through participation in various Species Survival Plans for endangered species.
Looking ahead, Alexandria Mayor Jeff Hall said he is excited about new projects underway at the zoo as part of its master plan, initiated during LeeAnn’s tenure and completed under Max’s direction, that will drive attendance, growth, and economic impact, all in service of the Zoo’s conservation mission well into the future.
One element of the plan includes the recent opening of the new, free-flight Aussie Aviary. The aviary adds a fun, interactive experience that allows guests to get up close and personal with colorful Australian parrot species and even feed them. The species include cockatiels, princess parrots, Eastern rosellas, and red-fronted parakeets. Many of the birds were donated to the Zoo by Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington.
The next top priority of the exciting and ambitious plan includes the return of tigers to the Zoo after the losses of beloved white tiger Hannah (to an aggressive form of cancer) and Jammu, the zoo’s elderly Malayan tiger, within a week of each other in September 2021. At the time of his death, Jammu was the oldest known male Malayan tiger in the United States. “Tigers are vital,” explains Max. “They have been a part of the Alexandria Zoo for nearly half a century.” The master plan includes extensive renovations and upgrades to the tiger habitat ahead of welcoming new Malayan tigers in the future. The proposed new habitat will also include a separate primate habitat for the return of siamang gibbons to the Zoo, with the two habitats serving as bookends for a brand new, air conditioned indoor cafe that will offer expansive, floor-to-ceiling views into both habitats.
In addition to the café, the new Tiger habitat will feature a sky bridge spanning the guest walkway for the Tigers to move overhead between habitats. The renovated space will also allow the Zoo’s tigers to participate in the Species Survival Plan breeding program with the AZA, meaning tiger cubs will be born right here in Cenla! “If everything goes to plan, we are probably three to five years out from welcoming tigers back,” explains Max.
Next to the Tiger exhibit renovations, the area best positioned for expansion—and a priority project in the master plan—is the African Experience, currently anchored by the African lion exhibit. The African Experience will see existing, undeveloped Zoo property located behind the lion habitat developed as an African grassland. The new habitat will provide guests sweeping views of various species native to Africa, including zebra, African birds, a nearby Pygmy Hippopotamus habitat, and the long-anticipated arrival of giraffe to the Alexandria Zoo! The exciting expansion will also include an elevated observation deck which will bring visitors face to face with the majestic giraffe and allow guests the opportunity to hand feed the Zoo’s giraffe herd.
In the center of the African Experience will be a new multipurpose events facility. The facility will be available for community rentals for civic gatherings, parties, receptions, meetings, weddings and much more! “We get at least two or three calls a week asking for this kind of facility,” explains Max. The climate controlled center will open directly onto an overlook of the African Grassland and will be surrounded by habitats that house some of the Zoo’s collection of ambassador animals—those specifically trained for close interaction with guests.
In an homage to the “Fun Land” rides of the past, the master plan also calls for the construction of a Conservation Carousel ride to the playground area of the Zoo. This traditional style ride combines whimsy, nostalgia, and beautifully crafted animal characters on which riders can enjoy a spin year-round. The Carousel will anchor a completely re-imagined and revitalized playground area.
The detailed master plan calls for much more! It includes a new, expanded education building, and eventually, a new entryway complex and gift shop to handle increased anticipated attendance. The plan also calls for future additions of new restrooms and water fountains, an expanded quarantine area for new and recovery animals, combining habitats for species that would naturally coexist in the wild, expanding the animal collection, and refreshes to other existing habitats and areas on a smaller scale, which can be completed during and between large scale projects.
It’s no secret that growing and operating a world-class, AZA accredited Zoo is a pricey endeavor, but it brings with it benefits beyond the invaluable educational and conservation achievements. The Zoo is a primary attraction for the Cenla area. “Alexandria is a destination city, and the Alexandria Zoo is certainly the crown jewel of Alexandria’s destination attractions,” said Mayor Hall. As the Zoo continues to grow, Max sees opportunity for the Zoo to continue to be an economic driver for the area. The master plan includes a goal of increasing attendance by 10% each year over year for the next five years, providing financial sustainability for the Zoo and driving positive economic tourism impact for the surrounding area into the next decade and beyond.
The Zoo’s master plan is ambitious, forward-thinking, and exciting; and it will require investment and buy-in from the entire community. Fortunately, there are several ways to get involved. The first is to visit the Zoo! Come often, and bring friends. Allow your out-of-town guests to fall in love with our Zoo, just as we all have.
The next is to join Friends of the of the Alexandria Zoo (FOTAZ). FOTAZ plays an integral role in the success of the zoo, most recently funding the construction of the Aussie Aviary and enabling continued recovery from 2020 storm damage. For one low price, FOTAZ members enjoy free regular daytime admission to the Zoo for a year! Members also receive special discounted pricing on select Zoo events, classes, birthday parties, Zootique purchases, and more, along with free or discounted admission to over 100 other zoos and aquariums nationwide. By becoming a member of FOTAZ, you’ll be helping the Alexandria Zoo and wildlife all over the world! FOTAZ memberships save more than money. Did you know that $5.00 of every membership goes to conservation efforts? As members, you are partners in protecting wildlife and wild places.
Alexandria Zoo also accepts tax-deductible donations through FOTAZ, which is a 501(c)3 non-profit. Donations can be made online at www.thealexandriazoo.com through FOTAZ’s PayPal Giving Fund charity page, or through gifts and memorials as part of your estate plan. Checks can be made out to Friends of the Alexandria Zoo and mailed to 3016 Masonic Drive, Alexandria, LA 71301.
While the funding required to complete the master plan is significant, so is the opportunity. “We know our space and resources are limited,” explains Mayor Hall. “But, as we proved with the creation of the Louisiana Habitat in 1998 and more recently the Land of the Jaguar in 2013, with careful planning and use of improved technology, we can work to upgrade and modernize our existing facility to create a better experience for the animals that live here and our guests.”
From humble beginnings a century ago, the Alexandria Zoo represents the best of Central Louisiana. So whether as a visitor, FOTAZ member, or volunteer, get in on the excitement! Looking to the next 100 years, Max’s enthusiasm is palpable. “The future of the Zoo is very bright!”