NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The largest private donation ever made to the Audubon Nature Institute will bring the lion's roar back to the Audubon Zoo.
Shipbuilding magnate Boysie Bollinger and his wife, Joy, have donated $5 million to fund a new habitat for African lions.
The Bollingers say their king-size gift was inspired by the more than 10 trips they have made to Africa and a desire to bring a piece of that experience back to New Orleans.
"It's our favorite place in the world," Boysie Bollinger said. "So, this is big for us."
Audubon officials said the plan calls for a new, 1.5-acre exhibit on a site that now houses the Zoo's eland collection.
Lions have not been part of the animal collection for three years. Bubba, a male, died of cancer in May 2013.
A 19-year-old female, Cassie, "retired" to the Audubon Species Survival Center on the West Bank later that year.
"It resonates with me going back to childhood and seeing this magnificent lion so sad, locked in a cage, a jail, a concrete cage in the hot sun with iron bars," Joy Bollinger said, "and I've never forgotten that."
Approximately 60 percent of the existing eland exhibit will be reserved for the lion habitat, with the remaining space set aside for a mix of hoof stock and bird species.
"To be honest with you, we would prefer to low-key this than make it broad," Boysie Bollinger said. "But I think the announcement is good for the zoo and makes other people think that they could contribute as well."
Zoo managers see the donation as phase one of a plan to revamp the Africa exhibit over the next five to seven years at a cost of up to $40 million.
"The ugliest word in a zoo right now is C-A-G-E, cage, so we try to provide natural environments, natural habitats, and they need more land," said Ron Forman, President and CEO of the Audubon Nature Institute.
Throughout many parts of Africa, lion populations have declined sharply since the early 1990's and studies show that the numbers are likely to dwindle further in the next two decades unless a major conservation effort is launched to save them.
The larger exhibit also follows a trend among modern zoos to exhibit animals in larger, more natural spaces.
"If animals like to swim, you've got to give them water," Forman said. "If they like to climb, you've got to give them trees. If they like to swing, you give them branches and ropes to swing on. If they like to climb, you give them rocks to climb on."
Zoo curators, who hope to breed lions, expect the exhibit initially to contain at least three lions, one male and two females.
The big thing we're going to have, though, is a holding facility in the back that's going to allow us to be part of the breeding program," said Joel Hamilton, General Curator at the Audubon Zoo.
"We'll have individual spaces for cubbing. We'll have extra space outdoors so we can separate cubs from the male, for instance, when that time is right."
Design work is underway now and construction could begin as early as next spring on the site across from the rhino and zebra habitat.
The opening is set for 2018, Audubon officials said.