VICKY WASIK PHOTOGRAPH
The night couldn’t have been more perfect for the annual Whitney Zoo-To-Do, a fundraiser for the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans. It was the first weekend of May, the weather unseasonably cool. Stars shone brightly in the clear skies, an effect reflected in the zoo’s historic oak tree limbs heavy with glowing white lights. Men were dapper in tuxedos or white linen suits; women were summer chic dressed in colorful cocktail dresses. More than 800 people were at the zoo that night – a testament to its importance, and also to Audubon Nature Institute President and CEO Ron Forman, himself taking in the night in a bespoke white linen suit.
It was Forman who 38 years ago came to the rescue of a zoo that was so run-down that the New York Times infamously called it an “animal ghetto” – and that was in 1958. Forman was 26 years old in ’73 and was working for Mayor Moon Landrieu as a City Hall Liaison for Audubon Park. Two years earlier, he joined City Hall, inspired by a speech that Landrieu had given to Forman’s MBA class, not knowing that instead of staying in school, he would take a job that would eventually lead him to being asked to run the zoo.
Forman already had a strong link to the zoo and Audubon Park. “I would ride my bike here, and it’s where I started my career, my first job, at age 10,” says Forman. “There was a paddlewheel boat, the swan boat [in Audubon Park]; my job was to help tie up the boat, and my payment was a free ride on the boat.” Forman also knew at an early age – despite being told that he was a natural on the trumpet – he wanted to be a zookeeper. “I grew up with a love of nature. My parents really taught us the beauty of life and nature,” says Forman.
Taking over a zoo in disrepair presented multiple challenges, but the year before Forman took over the post, a special referendum generated nearly $2 million in bonds to finance the beginning of the zoo’s restoration. Forman was also encouraged by the Friends of the Zoo, who raised money and supported the zoo and organized the first Zoo-to-Do, chaired that year by Kitty Duncan. Now one of the top events in the city, it’s the largest nonmedical fundraiser in the United States, currently raising more than $1 million each year.
Since that fortuitous year, Forman has expanded and improved the zoo, as well as added 10 other museums, parks and organizations to what now makes up the Audubon Nature Institute: Audubon Zoo, Audubon Park, Woldenberg Riverfront Park, Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center, Entergy IMAX Theatre, Audubon Institute Nature Center, Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species, Audubon Wilderness Park, Audubon Insectarium and the Audubon Nature Institute Foundation. Also part of the institute (coordinated through the Aquarium) is the Louisiana Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Rescue Program, which is the primary responder for Louisiana for rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing marine mammals and sea turtles.
In addition to his duties at Audubon Nature Institute, Forman is involved in many facets of civic life – he’s currently on the board of the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District – and he ran for mayor in 2006, when the city had an uncertain future after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. He ultimately dropped out of the race.
Even if he had been elected mayor, one gets the feeling he would have missed working at the zoo. Who wouldn’t want to: take a quick break amongst the elephants, lions, tigers and bears; see the smiling faces of children and their families; be involved in cutting-edge research that keeps animals from extinction; and save animals from environmental disasters, such as sea turtles after the BP oil spill?
“When I was in graduate school, if you had asked me what I was going to do – that I would be working at a zoo – I would be like, ‘I don’t know’,” says Forman. “Thirty-eight years later, I still have a passion and love for what I do – it’s one of the best jobs in the city.
The zoo’s namesake, naturalist and artist John James Audubon, would be proud.
Name: Leon Ronald Forman Age: 63 Profession: President and CEO, Audubon Nature Institute Born/raised: New Orleans Resides: Uptown Family: Wife, Sally; children Dan (who has three children), Cassidy and McClain, both of whom are in college. Merry, a Cavalier King Charles dog (though Forman also says before this dog, he was a Labrador kind of guy), and an assortment of previous pets including hamsters, gerbils, bearded dragons and snakes.
Education: Andrew H. Wilson Elementary School, Eleanor McMain Junior High School, then Alcee Fortier High School. Attended Louisiana State University; studied in Tulane University’s MBA program. Favorite book: I read about two to three books at a time. Right now I’m reading the latest John Grisham, as well as The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America. Favorite movie: Field of Dreams Favorite TV show: I don’t watch much TV, but I’ll usually watch the news and sports. Favorite restaurant: Truly I love so many restaurants in New Orleans, I can’t just pick one. One of Sally’s and my passions is to be out in New Orleans and one of the fun things to do is to explore new places. Some of the greatest restaurants are in New Orleans. Favorite music: I am more into nature sounds – birds singing and trees swaying in the wind. We go to Jazz Fest, see the Neville Brothers. In my car I like the sound of silence. Hobby: I like to be outdoors – walking in the woods, bird watching. I play golf.
Favorite vacation spot: To go on a safari in Africa (Forman does this at least once a year for research for the zoo).
What has kept you at the Audubon Nature Institute for 38 years? It’s really the pleasure of watching young people having fun. You see the smiles on their faces, the interaction and, on a “bad day,” you may have someone have running up to give you a hug. The other part is when you talk to children and their parents, listening to stories about their love of nature, it reminds you that you’re doing a good thing.
What are some of the new things at the zoo and Aquarium? The Cool Zoo. The funny thing about Cool Zoo is that statistically with the numbers we saw each year, the aquarium far outnumbered the zoo with visitors during the summer, so we wanted to figure out how to get more visitors to the zoo. We came up with a strategy to take the impression from a hot zoo to a cool zoo. So the first phase is the water feature, and it has far exceeded our expectations. Another project is Parakeet Pointe at the aquarium. It’s hard [obviously] to interact with a fish, so we created a space where the birds fly overhead and you can feed them – kids love it.
What are some future projects? Expanding the elephant exhibit. Recreating the children’s zoo and the Caribbean exhibit at the aquarium. There’s something new every year.
Is there one part of the Audubon Nature Institute that the public isn’t aware of? I think there are several components. I know people are aware that we’re a zoo and the aquarium, but I don’t know how much the general population knows all we do with research and conservation of endangered animals. We’re doing about 20 things [here], and worldwide we’re doing more. The reproduction of endangered animals, including the collection of semen, frozen eggs, cells. [Also,] when you work in this profession, you realize that we need to teach people about wildlife, because it’s disappearing and we have the responsibility – man is responsible for the loss of wildlife and habitat. So, how do we work to minimize the loss of wildlife, as more animals will become extinct in our lifetime?
This is a very serious side of the Audubon Nature Institute.
So it’s not just one part of the Audubon Nature Institute that works on saving endangered species? It’s all of our facilities. The Audubon Nature Institute does two things: educate and research. We work hard on education and try to bring out that passion for wildlife, while at the same time we do research. We are one of the leading institutes in that field.
If you weren’t in your current job, what would you be doing at Audubon Nature Institute? At this age, I think I would like to work on the research side. It’s incredibly interesting – [for example] we’re now able to take an egg cell, put it in a special machine and extract DNA, then take a cell of an animal, really microscopic, put that cell into an egg, and egg then takes on the DNA of that cell.
When I was younger, I would say I would be more hands-on working with animals.
True Confession: I had my first kiss at the sea lion pool as a young man.