Audubon Zoo's Newest Building Turns Day To Night


NEW ORLEANS (AP) — It's daylight outside, but with indoor lights simulating a full moon, hundreds of bats flap back and forth. On a nearby wall, what appears to be a talking stone face provides bat fun facts.

It's the night house at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, and it opens Friday. The Associated Press got a preview Tuesday.

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The centerpiece of the $1.6 million night house is the 42-foot-long flight cage for 200 Seba's short-tailed bats — fruit-eating mammals up to 2½ inches (6.4 centimeters) long, with a foot-wide (30 centimeter) wingspan.

"It's amazing going in there and having the bats fly by you," animal care staffer Dominique Fleitas said Tuesday. "You can feel the wind as their wings are flapping around you."

She said their echolocation — the ability to use sound to locate objects — is so precise that they easily go around her.

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The animals in the Criaturas de la Noche (Creatures of the Night) Bat House all are from Central and South America. The building's interior simulates an abandoned warehouse set up to protect Mayan artifacts during a dig. One wall is painted with maps of the supposed site and its general area. Tiles, plates and other "artifacts" hang on other walls or sit on shelves.

Near one end of the flight cage is a giant simulated carving of a man with loudspeakers for earrings, topped by a movie projection of a speaking, sculpted face.

"Push my buttons. I dare you," it says at intervals. "I'd do it myself but I have no arms. I'm just a giant button-head."

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Pressing the buttons elicits messages such as "Some bats live by themselves, while others live in caves with thousands of other bats. The largest bat colony in the world is found in Texas, at the Bracken Cave."

A much smaller colony — eight vampire bats — lives in one of a half-dozen exhibit cases set up as if a visitor was looking through a broken wall into the jungle. Their home is made to imitate a tropical ceiba-tree's buttress-like root with cup-like green lichen growing from it. During the preview, a half-dozen bats hung together from one such cup, forming a clump that could fit easily into one hand, while a seventh lapped cow's blood from a small bowl on the ground.

Other cases hold giant cave cockroaches, reddish poison dart frogs with creamy white stripes, two kinds of tarantulas, and thumb-sized green tree frogs. At each end are two more elaborate displays, one for the Nancy Ma's night owl monkeys, or douroucoulis, and the other for a ring-tailed cat — actually related to raccoons.

The roaches' home is made to imitate a huge football-shaped termite mound formed around several branches and later slashed open by an anteater. A half-dozen 3-inch-long (7.5-centimeter) cockroaches were aligned along one branch, just hanging out.

"They're creepy. Super creepy," said Ashley McClaran, vice president for construction and exhibits. "They hiss at you and they're giant. My son is going to love them. He's seven."

The ring-tailed cat and douroucoulis were wary of the strangers tromping near the quarters they'd just moved into.

Ignoring a slanted climbing wall designed to look like part of an intricately carved Mayan ball court, the ring-tailed cat occasionally left the shelter of a crate at one side.

The arboreal douroucoulis' exhibit, created to look as if thick ropes were being used to haul up an intricately decorated 2-foot-wide pottery circle, has lots of places for above-ground clambering. But the monkeys were sitting on a shelf at the exhibit's top left corner, and could barely be seen.

"We're going to move that little shelf today," to a much lower spot below the entrance to their sleeping quarters, on the other side of the enclosure, McClaran said. "It will give them an easy way to get into the back-of-house, and a platform to see them."

– by AP reporter Janet McConnaughey

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