Louisiana goes by a lot of names–the Bayou State, the Creole State, Sportsman’s Paradise–but for those looking to commune with nature, it’s the Pelican State first and foremost.

With their oversized heads, throat pouches and splay-footed walk, pelicans may not be among nature’s most elegant birds, but they are among the most fascinating, whether dive bombing for fish or sunning themselves on the various sandbars, pilings, jetties and breakwaters fronting the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Ponchartrain, the Mississippi River and other bodies of water around the state.

The pelican and countless other feathered friends find their way into the hearts and camera phones of tourists from across the globe, as do scores of other native residents such as deer, otters, armadillos, foxes and that silent, mysterious swamp dweller, the alligator.

You’re likely to see many of these and more on boat tours, hikes, paddling trips and other treks.

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“Part of the mystery of Louisiana’s swamps are the hundreds of species of animals and reptiles that live in them,” said Barry Landry, director of communications for the Louisiana Office of Tourism. “Many times people see pictures or video of alligators, but in Louisiana, swamp guides bring tour groups up close, often helping them feed the alligators in their natural habitat.”

For even more up-close-and-personal animal interactions, attractions and preserves around the state may be just the ticket for groups.

“There are group-friendly attractions in Louisiana that use animal encounters to enhance the visitor experience,” Landry noted.

Following are just a few of the many choices.

Later, Gator

For a species as old as the alligator—their ancestors date back 200 million years—only a chateau will do.

At Gator Chateau in Jeff Davis Parish, west of New Orleans, rescued baby and mature alligators are fostered and cared for until they’re ready to be released back into the wild.

Tours of the 11-acre park include holding and feeding the babies and observing as the older ones are fed hot dogs and other tasty fare.

“Our tours educate your group, then they can hold and take pictures with the baby alligators,” said Marketing Director Dione Sabelhaus, who oversees both Gator Chateau and the Jeff Davis Parish Tourist Commission. “Normally, those who don’t want to hold a baby gator are encouraged by those who do, creating the opportunity for people to work together as a team.”

A coming attraction for groups: Sabelhaus said Gator Chateau is in the process of building a new center that will include after-hours event space.

Just west of Shreveport, Gators & Friends bills itself as an exotic animal petting zoo and adventure park, with a zipline course over an alligator habitat, go-kart racing and more than 150 Louisiana alligators located throughout the park. Don’t be camera shy—have your picture taken with one of them.

Zoo Stories

New Orleans enjoys worldwide fame as the birthplace of jazz and is a modern-day mecca for music, history and culture, but the Crescent City has its wild side, too.

A trio of Audubon facilities showcasing what’s in the air, on land and under the sea, includes the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, the Audubon Zoo and the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium.

Set on the Mississippi River, the Aquarium highlights a variety of aquatic environments including a penguin habitat, a rainforest and a dazzling Caribbean reef encased in a walk-through tunnel. Pet a stingray, feed a parakeet, watch an alligator tear into an orange—there’s no such thing as an average day at the Aquarium.

Meanwhile, the bayous of Louisiana are re-created at the Audubon Zoo, immersing guests in swamp culture with its unique collection of animals including gators, nutria, black bears and otters.

Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, New Orleans

Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, New Orleans

And if it creeps, crawls or flutters, it probably lives at the Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, touted as North America’s largest museum devoted to insects and their relatives, where visitors will see everything from the Atlas moth, whose wingspan can reach 12 inches, to the tiny Formosan subterranean termite.

In addition to wandering through the Audubon exhibits in a state of wonder, groups can enjoy discounted admission and guided tours as well as space for gatherings.

“Audubon Zoo does offer meeting rooms, classrooms and a small auditorium for rent through our education department,” noted Frank Donze, communications specialist for the New Orleans-based Audubon Nature Institute. “The Gulf Conference Room at the Aquarium is available for meeting rental and offers a view of our Gulf of Mexico exhibit.”

Into the Woods

Draining into the Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana’s coastal wetlands comprise more than 40 percent of all wetlands in the lower states and hold a special place in the imagination and culture of the state. But things dry out a bit further north, with nearly 50 percent of the land covered by forests and woodlands, providing habitats for animals and recreation for the people hoping to see them.

“While hiking or biking any of our 200 miles of trails, you are likely to see many of our native animals, such as the bobcat, gray squirrels, possums, white-tailed deer and wild turkeys. And then of course, we have our snakes,” said Stacy Blomquist, public affairs specialist for the Kisatchie National Forest—the state’s only national forest—covering over 604,000 acres from central to north Louisiana.

Not to worry. Guides will help the group steer clear of poisonous snakes while pointing out everything from bats and bears to dozens of bird species, including the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, which Blomquist points to as one of the forest’s conservation success stories.

“They almost went extinct, but now we’re a donor forest to other national forests,” she said. “We send them woodpeckers to repopulate the species in other locations.”

Steve Shively, Wildlife Biologist, Calcasieu Ranger District, Kisatchie National Forest

Steve Shively, Wildlife Biologist, Calcasieu Ranger District, Kisatchie National Forest

Blomquist encourages groups to come out during such special events as Bug Day in June, with activities including cockroach races and educational tours to view such species as the industrious leafcutter ant.

And don’t forget the entomophagy—eating insects. That’s right, your favorite creepy crawly baked into such tasty treats as cricket banana bread and mealworm marshmallow Rice Krispies Treats.

While eating insects may not be most attendees’ idea of a good time, there’s always a feast for the eyes to enjoy.

“If groups wanted to come here and take a tour of the national forest, we can do that,” Blomquist said. “We can take them out on a bus and introduce them to things like our longleaf forest restoration. Bring your binoculars.”

Meanwhile, in Shreveport, the Walter B. Jacobs Memorial Nature Park is set within 160 acres of pine-oak-hickory forest. Groups can access the park on five miles of hiking trails and also visit live animal exhibits such as a deer enclosure and birds of prey aviary.

Capital Wildlife

Baton Rouge may be Louisiana’s seat of government, but nature is never far away here either, especially with the Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center nearby.

This 103-acre retreat houses live animal exhibits and offers over a mile of gravel paths and boardwalks through such habitats as the cypress-tupelo swamp, beech-magnolia and hardwood forests, where you’ll glimpse snakes and turtles, armadillos, coyotes, raccoons and deer.

The main exhibit building also houses a conference room accommodating up to 40, while larger groups can reserve the entire building for after-hours events.

NEW ORLEANS CVB CONTACT INFORMATION

Louisiana Office of Tourism
800.677.4082

Alexandria/Pineville Area CVB
318.442.9546

Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana CVB
337.436.9588

Jefferson CVB
504.731.7083

Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission
337.232.3737

Shreveport-Bossier Convention and Tourist Bureau
318.222.9391

St. Tammany Parish Tourist and Convention Commission
985.892.0520

New Orleans CVB
504.566.5011

Visit Baton Rouge
225.383.1825