I had heard that the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans was a really great zoo. The people who told me this (not zoo aficionados) were never able to say what was great about it. They didn't mention rare species, successful breeding programs, or brilliant enrichment schemes.
It was just really great.
I recently got to go for the first time, and I think I know the reason for their enthusiasm.
They sell these along with the usual fast food available at American zoos. I asked the server what was in them, thinking maybe it was some sort of lime soda. She found the question strange. “Rum?” she said.
I shouldn't have been surprised. New Orleans is the wettest town I know, one that could have a banner at the airport reading WELCOME SLOPPY DRUNKS. It just hadn't occurred to me that this spirit extended to the zoo.
Shocked, I purchased a daiquiri and set out to see some animals.
I am interested in zoos. I loved the giant anteaters, who were milling around madly, awaiting their chance to go back into their night quarters.
The humans were like zoo visitors everywhere, inclined to stand next to a large sign that explains that orangutans are not monkeys but apes and say “Look at the monkey, Jesse!” Yet they were less frenetic than usual, maybe because of the heat. In the languid humid air, people swanned dreamily along the paths. Some were clasping icy beverages. Perhaps the slow aimless pace of the visitors is less jangling to the animals.
While walking around the pond in the South American Pampas exhibit, I heard a splash. I turned to see a rhea hastily climbing out of the water. The other rheas seemed fascinated and started following the damp one. (What was it like? Was it fun? Was it cool? Did you float? Are you gonna go in again? Go in again! You should go in again!)
Was the rhea imitating the ducks in the pond? No. Later investigation revealed that rheas are known to swim. Darwin saw rheas swim across the Santa Cruz River in Argentina. So this zoo-born rhea was experimenting with a skill used by its wild relatives. That was interesting.
Finally I arrived at the spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi).
The large exhibit, modeled on Central American ruins, was good to look at and, more importantly, full of things a monkey can do with a prehensile tail.
If you had such a tail, you could hook it over something. Or twine it along something.
You could use it for balance, like an outrigger, or for artistic emphasis.
You could use it to carry things, even if all you have to tote is a bunch of grass.
In a vision I now imagine the Audubon zoo extending its hospitality to its occupants. I behold anteaters even more avid to get into their evening quarters, where frosty beverages are served. I suppose that an individual with a prehensile tail is perfectly fitted to stroll a slack rope while holding a daiquiri. Dreamily, I even wonder if this policy hasn't already been implemented. Unscheduled swimming is the sort of thing alcohol often inspires in young creatures.
What a great zoo.