Cameras were flashing and cellphone videos were rolling as a few of New Orleans' newest celebrities made a pre-performance press appearance Friday morning.

The scene wasn't a theater or concert hall, however — it was the Audubon Zoo, where a new, $5 million African Savanna exhibit officially opening Saturday is putting four lions on public display at Audubon for the first time in nearly six years.

"Bringing the roar back to New Orleans is what it's all about," said Joel Hamilton, the zoo's general curator. "It's an iconic sound, and this is a great addition."

Audubon had announced weeks ago that it had acquired the lions — a 4-year-old male named Arnold and three 3-year-old sisters named Nia, Kali and Zuri.

Arnold was the first to arrive, coming in February from his birthplace, Wildlife Safari, a 600-acre drive-through animal park in Winston, Oregon. The three females followed from the Peoria Zoo in Illinois, where they were born.

The last time the zoo had a lion exhibit was in 2013, when male lion Bubba died of cancer and female Cassie “retired” at the age of 20 to the quiet of the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center on the West Bank, where she still lives today.


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Now, the lions have a spacious new habitat that looks like an African savanna with grasses, trees and large pieces of granite called "kopjes" that bring to mind Pride Rock from the Disney movie "The Lion King." In nature, they create shade, pools of water and vantage points to spot predators.

The exhibit, paid for by philanthropists Joy and Donald “Boysie” Bollinger, also features a replica of an abandoned 1920s-era train station, which Audubon officials called “a tragic symbol" of the transportation system that "opened the door to habitat loss, poaching and the devastation of Africa’s vast natural resources."

Mock train cars have been turned into conservation and research stations that offer animal care and education demonstrations, while also featuring up-close looks at the animals.

Nearby, a Tingatinga-style mural painted by local artist Theresa Norris features a bright and colorful savanna filled with wildlife.

Officials hope the new addition, which features 12,000 square feet of roaming space as well as a 4,000-square-foot holding facility, will spur a renovation of the zoo’s entire African domain, which also holds animals like zebras, giraffes and rhinos.

"This is really the first, cornerstone exhibit for the rest of the African Savanna exhibit," Hamilton said. "All the space will get redeveloped around this hub."

Since the lions arrived earlier in the year, zookeepers have been working behind the scenes to help them settle in, implementing a daily routine that involves structured play, eating 5 to 12 pounds a day of protein like fish, frozen quail and rabbit, and napping for about 20 hours a day, according to Madi Marullo, one of the animal care specialists.

The staff has learned that Arnold likes smelling elephant dung and giraffe urine during "scent enrichment" and enjoys sharpening his claws on branches. The girls enjoy playing with a jingle ball containing bells and "hunting" plastic targets that pop up again after they are knocked down, Marullo said.

But while lions are considered to be the most social of nature's big cats, heavily relying on each other to hunt and protect the pride, the zoo's male lion has mostly been kept separate from the females.

That's because it takes time and patience to make a successful pride in captivity, officials said.

By Friday, the female lions were able to wander the exhibit freely most days, but Arnold was allowed to visit with them only once a day.

It hasn't been all peachy, Marullo said, pointing to an open sore on Zuri's leg, which first happened when she and Arnold fought and was exacerbated when her sisters started licking the wound, in an apparent effort to clean it.

But Audubon is relying on the lions ultimately getting along. The zoo hasn't been shy about its main goal: breeding the lions to ultimately create a "successful and cohesive" pride of big cats.

To that end, the four lions were chosen specifically for their lineage. They all descend from a subspecies found in southern and eastern Africa, and have specific genetic and behavioral matches, zoo officials said.

The zoo's breeding program is aimed at furthering conservation efforts. Right now, the lion population in the wild is “critically endangered,” standing at about 20,000 — down from more than 450,000 in the 1940s, according to Audubon.

In the wild, lions tend to live about 14 to 17 years, Hamilton said, but they can live much longer in captivity. Cassie is now 22.

Breeding doesn't always work out, however. In the time he lived at the Audubon Zoo, Bubba and his female partners never produced any offspring.

On Saturday, to celebrate the exhibit's opening, zoo members are invited to a "sneak preview celebration" an hour before the zoo opens and featuring a second-line to the newly constructed habitat.

Guests will also be able to participate in "Party for the Planet: Endangered Species Day," about the importance of protecting endangered species.

But on Friday, zoo attendees could already be seen peeking through openings in the lion habitat's fence, which was partially covered by signs advertising the exhibit's opening.

Among them was 66-year-old Dorsee Underwood, a clerical worker who remembered seeing the lions years ago. 

"I'm glad they're back. I've been going to the zoo since I was 13, and I've watched the transformation over the years," Underwood said. "And I was just saying what a beautiful habitat this is."


Follow Della Hasselle on Twitter, @dellahasselle.