Zoo fest a celebration of La. swamp

Ready to romp at the 28th annual Louisiana Swamp Festival, Julie Fontenot led family and friends through the Audubon Zoo gates as soon as they opened Saturday morning. The group sprinted toward the main music stage and spread a big blue blanket in the shade of a huge oak, dripping with Spanish moss.

“Open the chairs. Let’s go. Get ’em up,” Fontenot said as the Lafayette Rhythm Devil band began to play.

Fontenot said the Swamp Festival is her favorite.

“I’m on the ball with these festivals,” she said.

The family fais do do continues from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, capping a weekend of Cajun music, cuisine and cultural activities.

Taking center stage at the zoo this weekend was the Louisiana Swamp Exhibit, where curator Rick Atkinson has been busy preparing to help people pass a good time.

“Here’s a spot where women of a certain age like to pose for photographs,” Atkinson said, pointing to the exhibit’s “cougar” sign. Nearby, Cleocatra, a four-legged cougar, stretched out on a tree limb, while a brown bear named for Hurricane Betsy surfaced from a dip in the languid lagoon.

Near the zoo’s entrance, Zydeco music set souls dancing Saturday at the Capital One stage. Sunday’s entertainment schedule includes the Bruce Daigrepont Cajun Band, Geno Delafose and French Rockin’ Boogie, BeauSoleil with Michael Doucet and Sunpie and The Louisiana Sunspots. Folks visiting the swamp exhibit get to hear the sounds of Tour Les Soirs.

Louisiana artworks and crafts are on sale, and food fare ranges from seafood fritters and alligator sausage on a stick to fried boudin balls, po-boys and Roman candy. Louisiana heritage presentations include the meaning of Creole and Cajun and the ecology of southern Louisiana.

A highlight of the annual event is the last alligator feeding of the season at the swamp exhibit.

“In cold weather, they don’t eat,” Atkinson said, noting that the popularity of the “Swamp People” television program has spawned “a chorus of ‘Shoot ’em’” as gators pop up from under thick green duckweed covering the lagoon.

Set in southern Louisiana in the early oil-drilling days of the 1930s, the cypress-laced exhibit is home to seven large alligators, including two white ones, which live indoors while others swim, sun and spar as they please.

Unlike most zoo exhibits, featuring animals and vegetation, the swamp exhibit incorporates human elements, such as meandering boardwalks and rustic buildings where people mingle among the wildlife.

“Here, we’re not trying to weed out man in the natural habitat,” Atkinson said.

During the festival, the exhibit’s Trapper’s cabin was housing small swamp creatures for visitors to examine up close, including a gopher tortoise, which burrows underground, and a common snapping turtle, better known as “cowan” in certain parts of Louisiana.

Atkinson has worn several hats since arriving at the zoo 37 years ago. He has wonderful tales to tell, such as the story of Mr. Bingle, the albino alligator, who caught the eye of a woman who wanted to buy him for her Bingle collection; Frankie, the orangutan, who bummed Viceroy cigarettes from visitors; and the great apes that were addicted to television wrestling matches and soap operas.

And, of course, there was the day Chicken Neck the jaguar escaped, Atkinson said.

For information about the festival, visit www.auduboninstitute.org.