As crowds swirled around them, two young girls posed on the edge of the pond Friday night at Audubon Zoo’s annual Zoo-to-Do for Kids.

Alexandra and Celie Rutledge, ages 9 and 6, smiled broadly as their mother, Rand, pointed her cellphone camera at them.

"I wanted a picture of them in front of the elephants,” Rand Rutledge said.

But the elephants she meant weren’t the living, breathing ones found in the zoo's Asian elephant exhibit. Rather, they were recently installed bronze sculptures commissioned by the zoo to replace papier-mâché figures that had deteriorated over the years.

"In the early 1900s, it was a trend for zoos in Europe to engage artists to create sculptures for their parks,” said Ron Forman, president and CEO of the Audubon Nature Institute. “We wanted the new fountain to tell a story about how animals relate in the wild. That’s what we were going for."

What used to be a goldfish pond in the 1950s and a water lily pond in the 1970s changed dramatically when a family of elephant sculptures was installed and began squirting water from their trunks.

The elephant fountain served as a focal point as visitors entered and proceeded down an allée of palm trees to the circular fountain in Cooper Plaza. Over the years, parents took thousands of photos of their excited children at the fountain’s edge. But time was taking a toll on the elephant sculptures.

"The problem was that pieces started falling off the elephants, and it became very hard to repair and maintain their appearance,” said Laurie Conkerton, Audubon’s executive vice president and chief administrative officer. "We realized that they had to be replaced."

As board members and staff explored possibilities, the concept emerged of transforming the fountain into a representation of an African watering hole, where several species would gather to drink on a hot day.

"I have been to Africa three times and seen elephants and lions drinking from the same watering holes, albeit at a considerable distance apart,” said Jocelyn Russell, the sculptor chosen to take on the project. “That's the reason the bull elephant and male lion are looking warily at one another — they're ready to protect their families.”

Russell, a lifelong traveler who lives in Washington state and has specialized in wildlife sculpture for years, said making the life-sized bronze sculptures over 22 months was challenging but thrilling.

Before she was hired by the zoo, she'd spent time observing the animals in nature.

“On my third trip to Africa I must've taken 10,000 photos of animals to study their posture, their musculature, their facial expressions,” she said. 

There are 10 sculptures in all, with meerkats on the way. 

“I started with miniatures and progressed to tabletop sizes, in clay. Then I made a latex mold of each piece and filled it with wax. After you take off the mold, you have a wax version of the piece. It has to be covered in white for the next step, which is being scanned by a 3D printer and blown up to the final size,” Russell explained.

“That makes it possible to laser-cut foam into the form of the sculpture. It’s the foam that you texture and sculpt. That’s a really important part — working on skin wrinkles and facial expressions.”

(For a step-by-step explanation of how the sculptures were created, go to wildlifebronzes.com.)

To complicate the process further, it was necessary to work with two foundries in two states; a single foundry could not have produced the works in time for Friday's event. One was in Oklahoma, the other in Colorado.

“I picked up the lions in a U-Haul in Colorado, then drove to Oklahoma, where the elephants were loaded onto a flatbed trailer. We must've been quite a sight, rolling down the interstate in the caravan,” Russell said. 

Audubon spokesman Frank Donze said the sculptures cost about $760,000, part of a $1.7 million investment in the Cooper Plaza refurbishment. Of that total, $1.23 million came from the state capital outlay fund, the rest in private donations.

After Russell’s circus parade made it to New Orleans on April 23, huge cranes lifted the sculptures onto cement pedestals in the fountain.

"There's rock work on the way that will hide the cement cylinders and the fountain machinery, so the elephants and lions will appear to be standing on rocks just above the waterline," Russell explained.

Rocks or no rocks, the newly installed sculptures were a hit with the Rutledge girls.

Said Alexandra, "It’s so much better now. I like that there are more animals than just elephants — and I really like how playful they look.”