Zoosiana train reopens after devastating May fire; St. Francis statue placed on display

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BROUSSARD (Daily Advertiser) — Raging flames reduced the Zoosiana train ride to blackened timbers and charred rubble over Memorial Day weekend, threatening exotic animals and triggering an attendance drop.

Now, Zoosiana officials are unveiling an improved, larger Safari Express — the centerpiece of the largest capital improvement project in the privately owned zoo’s history.

And the project features a small statue of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals. The burning train depot collapsed at the foot of the figure, which emerged unscathed amid the wreckage.

All animals escaped injury, and the fire failed to spread into overhanging vegetation — which zoo officials consider miraculous.

This marks the first week of daily train operations, timed in advance of tourist-drawing Mardi Gras festivities across Acadiana. The $500,000-plus rebuilding project also features a renamed St. Francis train depot housing a Beastro Snack Bar, a revamped Jungle Lodge playground and a restroom building.

“Everything was completely destroyed in the fire. It was extremely scary, too,” said Lea Loftin, Zoosiana marketing director. “It happened about 11 o’clock at night, and about every fire department within a 50-mile radius was out here — everybody comes running to help if you’ve got to start moving animals.

“It was unbelievable. I could only get up to where those boars are right now, it was so hot,” Loftin said, pointing across the train loop. “And the flames were just going straight up, along with the smoke. It was so hot it melted the porcelain toilets.

“I actually sat and cried watching it. But then when this arrived, I was like a kid. I was jumping up and down, I was so excited. Because it’s so nice and pretty and new,” Loftin said.

Safari Express admission remains $3 for riders age 3 and older. The blue-and-yellow trackless train takes passengers on a scenic 3/8 mile loop, meandering through a 5-acre wildlife pasture and passing beneath the elevated squirrel monkey enclosure.

The post-fire project is Zoosiana’s biggest undertaking, topping construction of the Zootorium in 2011, Assistant Zoo Director Matt Oldenburg said.

In November, Oldenburg traveled to Naples, Florida, to test-drive various models of zoo trains. He also gathered information during the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions annual expo in Orlando.

Gopo Trains built the new Safari Express train, and the locomotive is a John Deere tractor — the vehicle drives on a concrete path, not railroad tracks. 

Equipped with a wheelchair ramp, the train accommodates about 80 adult passengers, whereas the original, 22-year-old train carried 48 adults. Top speed on the loop is a 3-mph walking pace, and the ride lasts 12 minutes.

Acadiana’s 45-acre zoo houses more than 750 animals, representing 130-plus species.  Oldenburg said weekday attendance dropped 5 percent last year after the well-publicized fire. 

“We know that certain families — especially local families — came to the zoo so many times specifically for the train. How many people? We don’t know,” Oldenburg said.

“We know it was a big attraction that people came for. We did see a dip without the train. And we’re hoping that we make up for that now with the new train,” he said.

The St. Francis of Assisi statue is now featured as a fountain atop a water-filled cast iron sugar kettle, surrounded by landscaping and a wooden walkway alongside its namesake train depot. Water cascades from a shell in the saint’s arms.

“South Louisiana has a heavy Catholic and Christian influence. So we thought it was meaningful to share that,” Oldenburg said.

“We’ve repurposed the rails from the old train to make the handrails. And on our wooden line queue area, those yellow straps over the wooden beams are fire engine hose, as a nod to the fire department personnel who came out to help put out the fire last May,” Oldenburg said.

The Zoosiana fire had encroached on Emmanuel the donkey and Elmer the miniature horse, who share a nearby enclosure, and the squirrel monkeys. Loftin said she also feared the giraffes might suffer smoke inhalation.

Safari Express closed Tuesday so six newly arrived blackbucks and a pair of waterbucks could acclimatize to the multi-species safari pasture, Oldenburg said. They arrived in Broussard from a wildlife park in northern Arizona.

“You can see our brown capuchins, which are a very playful primate. People have seen the movie ‘Night at the Museum.’ The little monkey named Dexter who takes the keys? He’s a brown capuchin. So they have a lot of personality. We have a large troop over there, and there’s always some level of activity going on,” he said.

“Out in the pasture, we’ve got our Bactrian camels, our scimitar-horned oryx, axis deer, water buck, black buck, and then we’ve got a pair of lar gibbons. They’re an ape species on an island, out on the train yard. 

“When you’re pulling back into the station, the train passes under our squirrel monkey exhibit, which is one of the largest troops of squirrel monkeys in the U.S. We have about 45 in there. It’s a very large family group, so with that you have a lot of personalities,” he said.

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