by Jeanni Ritchie

I thought there was no better way to kick off a new series on places to visit in Louisiana than by featuring an attraction in my own hometown.

The Alexandria Zoo has been a part of my life since I was a little girl and continues to bring me the same joy it did back in the 70’s!

Once a concrete maze of enclosures, I knew exactly where every animal was on my route as a child. I can still draw a diagram of each ride in the adjoining amusement park. My fond childhood memories give way to motherhood memories and the many trips to an expanded zoo under the long-term leadership of Les and Leann Whitt.

My children experienced viewing the animals in the zoo in more natural habitats, a reformation brought on by the vision of the Whitts likely made in correlation with mandates brought on by the US Endangered Species Act of 1973. Almost daily visits were usually made at the 10 AM feeding time so that the animals would be more active.

Every trip included a train ride and feeding the fish, something my students would do as well when I once again went on field trips, this time as a teacher.

The Alexandria Zoo held even more meaning after my daughter died and we attended an annual Walk to Remember each October in memory of the babies we lost in Central Louisiana through the Healing Hearts perinatal loss support group. There is now a playground area and a bright yellow swing in the middle of the butterfly garden with monuments and dedications to these babies as well as all children of the Bereaved Parents of Cenla.

After I moved out of state in 2007, my trips home were a whirlwind but I always found time to go to the zoo. Its growth continued and I looked forward to seeing new additions with each visit.

When I moved back to Alexandria last year, my first order of business was getting a Louisiana driver’s license. My second was getting an annual FOTAZ membership. The cost is similar to one month of a gym membership and walking the paths of the zoo beat walking on a treadmill any day!

Plus I made new friends in the animals at a time when I felt untethered. Brother Black Bears Chip and Dale were temporarily displaced as the Louisiana habitat was being remodeled. I related. Our trio was a free, informal support group of sorts!

I met the Australian Laughing Kookaburra as well. I now always sing the Kookaburra song my Granddaddy taught me to him when I visit, even when he’s hiding in the ole gum tree!

I usually go during the week and have a quieter experience but found myself at the zoo nearly every Saturday in April. There’s a different atmosphere on the weekends and I loved the feel of enthusiastic life. I discovered visitors of all demographics. I told one couple I thought I was the only adult who came without children. Laughing, they said it was the best way to visit the zoo.

There were families, single parents with their children, teenagers, and senior citizens enjoying the zoo. Wheelchairs, wagons, and strollers rolled past on every walkway. There were other solo venturers and a large group celebrating a birthday.

I met Zayn, 5, and Azariah Rocha, 7, at the black howler monkey cage. It was Azariah’s favorite animal but Zayn’s had been the giant snapping turtle. Little sister Rylee, 1, was busy trying to escape her own cage, the stroller!

The Story Walk in the Children’s Playground Area is a project of the LSU Ag Center. Created by Anne Ferguson of Montpelier, VT, and developed in collaboration with the Kellogg-Hubbard Library, this project encourages families to spend time outdoors while promoting early literacy. Each page of a story is encased in glass along the walk and parents can scan a QR code to complete a survey for a free book from the Alexandria Zoo’s gift shop. A new story, Worm Weather by Jean Taft, was up in April, something noted by 5 year-old Ryder as she and her mom came through.

I never leave without a train ride, even at my age, so I headed toward my favorite spot, the caboose. The train was already packed so I was surprised to find it still empty. At the last minute, however, I decided to leave it open. There were more passengers in line and real kid desires overshadow overgrown child ones!

Sure enough, a couple of minutes later a group of kids ran past me shouting, “Hurry! Hurry! Get the last seat before someone else does!”

Laughing, I turned around and told them I left it open just in case someone wanted it as much as me. The kids thanked me profusely as we shared the train ride together!

I love making new friends at the Alexandria Zoo!

Jeanni Ritchie is a perennial Peter Pan with a FOTAZ membership and a lifetime love of zoos.



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