Visit the magical land of the father of conservation in the South.
by Ashley Steenson
In 1920, a New York Times journalist called scientist, businessman, writer, explorer and Tabasco heir E.A. McIlhenny the “father of conservation in the South.” McIlhenny founded two wildlife refuges in Louisiana, including his own Jungle Gardens. Official Tabasco historian Shane Bernard, author of two books on the family, explains that McIlhenny “envisioned acquiring most of Louisiana’s Gulf Coast as protected preserves.”
Edward Avery “Ned” McIlhenny was born March 29, 1872, on Avery Island in Iberia Parish, Louisiana. Avery Island is a salt dome that rises out of bayous, a marsh and a cypress swamp. The island’s 2,200 acres provide a home for plants and animals that are not present in the waters that surround it, so McIlhenny had a passion for nature from a young age. Avery Island was also home to a variety of people, considering the influences of Native Americans and enslaved individuals, as well as the Cajuns and Black Southerners who made hot sauce for the McIlhenny Company.
Educated in the Midwest and Northeast, McIlhenny dropped out of college to become an ornithologist on an 1894 Arctic expedition led by Dr. Frederick A. Cook. Their ship the Miranda sank, yet McIlhenny embarked on another arctic expedition from 1897-1898. When he returned, he took over Tabasco from his brother John A. McIlhenny, Rough Rider and friend of progressive President Theodore Roosevelt.
Back home, McIlhenny became committed to restoring the population of snowy egrets on Avery Island. Since egret feathers became popular for women’s hats, egret populations had dropped drastically. In 1913, McIlhenny made a documentary called “The Snowy Egret and its Extinction,” which displayed graphic images of hunters killing egrets. McIlhenny even persuaded members of Congress to see the film. “Once they saw that film, they were with us,” he said. In a novel experiment, he captured eight young egrets, tended to them in a “flying cage” at Willow Pond and freed them to migrate South. He claimed the egrets would land on his shoulder and cry out for him. Since the 1890s, thousands have returned to what he named “Bird City.” Theodore Roosevelt called it “the most noteworthy reserve in the country.” In 1916, British biologist and co-founder of the World Wildlife Fund Sir Julian Huxley visited the refuge.
Bird City lies within Jungle Gardens, what Bernard calls McIlhenny’s “170-acre personal estate.”
Jungle Gardens once held countless varieties of azaleas, camellias and irises, many of which still grow today. McIlhenny constructed Venetian lagoons for his aquatic plants and converted an old sand pit into a cactus garden. His orange groves are gone, but groves of magnolia, bamboo and holly continue to flourish (including a hedgerow of Chinese holly from the 1920s). Spanish moss and resurrection fern cling to live oaks that are hundreds of years old. Parts of “Evangeline”, starring iconic Mexican actress Dolores Del Rio, were filmed in Jungle Gardens in 1929. McIlhenny opened his estate to the public in 1935 to promote car travel during the Great Depression, and the refuge has seen thousands of visitors ever since.
In 1936, McIlhenny’s friends Ernest Tracy and Robert Young sent him a Buddha found in a New York warehouse, now one of the gardens’ main attractions. Bernard explains that it might have “been commissioned by the twelfth-century emperor Hui-Tsung (1101-1125), created by artist Chon-Ha-Chin, and taken from the Shonfa Temple near Peking by a rogue Chinese Warlord.” McIlhenny designed a gate and temple for the wooden statue and landscaped the surrounding area into small hills. He added a stone bridge across from the temple and gardens featuring Chinese iris and azaleas. Today, Buddhists hold events there.
At different points, Jungle Gardens has hosted birds like ibises, herons, songbirds, ducks and geese, as well as egrets. Animals like deer, bobcats, snakes, coyotes, armadillos, rabbits and raccoons have also thrived on Avery Island. McIlhenny kept bear cubs as pets, but black bears on the island are now limited to certain areas. Though he was a hunter himself, McIlhenny forbade deer hunting, because Americans had almost wiped out the species at the time. He allowed drilling beginning in 1942, but required that live oaks be avoided and the land be returned to its natural state.
In addition to founding Jungle Gardens and running Tabasco for decades, McIlhenny served as the first president of the state Audubon Society. In 1911, he and businessman Charles Willis Ward created State Wildlife Refuge in Vermilion Parish. Wealthy widow Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage and robber baron John D. Rockefeller then funded two additional refuges. Donated to the state, the total refuges set aside over 175,000 acres of wetlands as waterfowl habitats. In addition to a 1933 book on Black spirituals, McIlhenny also wrote books on animals like The Alligator’s Life History (1935). Along with writing about them, he kept pens to study alligators up close. He started an experimental farm and banded over 285,000 birds throughout his life. McIlhenny ran a successful landscape architecture firm, and his nursery provided plants for City Park in New Orleans.
While his conservation measures were almost universally successful, McIlhenny emerged unscathed after multiple public failures. For example, he attempted to open portions of the refuge land in Vermilion Parish for hunting in 1923 and initiated a controversy that made it into The New York Times. McIlhenny was also partially responsible for introducing nutria to Louisiana for their fur, and the state officially declared them a nuisance because of damage to wetlands. Side businesses he launched from the Tabasco brand led to debt, and the state sued him for funds one of his businesses received for a project at Louisiana State University (the charges were dropped).
After years of bad health following a stroke, Ned McIlhenny died in 1949 at the age of 77. McIlhenny’s legacy persists today, as he remains well-known for creating the current Tabasco logo and dedicating his life to protecting the environment. In 1920, McIlhenny told the Times that he hoped Bird City was only the beginning. “In the course of time, I am sure, this whole  miles of gulf coast will have become so completely sanctuary to the wild birds that they will be as tame throughout its  miles as are those in Willow Pond.”
Shane K. Bernard, Scott Carroll and Lisa J. Osborn, The History of Jungle Gardens (2010)
Shane K. Bernard, Exhibits, Tabasco Factory and Museum, Jungle Gardens, Avery Island, LA
Shane K. Bernard, Tabasco: An Illustrated History (2007)
“Bird Lovers Plan to Buy Game Tract,” The New York Times (1923)
H.H. Dunn, “Where the Wild Birds Nest and Rest,” The New York Times Book Review and Magazine (1920)
E.A. McIlhenny, The Alligator’s Life History (1935)
E.A. McIlhenny, The Autobiography of an Egret (1939)
E.A. McIlhenny, Bird City (1934)
E.A. McIlhenny, “Louisiana Bird Hunters,” The New York Times (1923)
E.A. McIlhenny, The Wild Turkey (1914)
Ashley Steenson is currently a history Ph.D. student at the University of Alabama and primarily writes about politics.