|Robert Leslie “Les” Whitt|
August 22, 1951|
Natchez, Adams County
Mississippi, United States
|Died||August 16, 2008
Ochsner Foundation Hospital
New Orleans, Louisiana
|Residence||Alexandria, Rapides Parish, Louisiana|
|Spouse(s)||Lee Ann Whitt|
Sarah W. Salley
|Parents||Mr. and Mrs. James V. Whitt, Sr.|
(1) Whitt was the director of Alexandria Zoological Park from 1974 until his death in 2008, during which time the zoo grew exponentially. heart transplant at Ochsner Foundation Hospital in New Orleans, where he died fourteen years later of renewed heart problems.
Robert Leslie Whitt (August 22, 1951 – August 16, 2008), known as Les Whitt, was the award-winning director of Alexandria Zoological Park in Alexandria, the seat of Rapides Parish and the largest city in Central Louisiana, having served from 1974 until his death from heart complications only six days prior to what would have been his 57th birthday. Whitt was also a musician who mastered a Hammond B-3 organ and played with B.B. King and B.B. Major, whom he had accompanied at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Whitt was born to the late Mr. and Mrs. James V. Whitt, Sr., in Natchez, Mississippi. In 1994, he received a heart transplant at Ochsner Foundation Hospital founded in New Orleans by the physician Alton Oschner. His donor was Lane Bourgeois of Prairieville in Ascension Parish. Whitt was an advocate of organ donation and frequently spoke on behalf of the Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency.
Whitt was appointed zookeeper by Malcolm Hebert, Alexandria's last elected streets and parks commissioner prior to the establishment in 1977 of the Mayor-council government, in which Hebert initially served as the director of public works under Mayor Carroll E. Lanier. The zoo is located adjacent to Bringhurst Park off Masonic Drive and near the Alexandria Mall. It grew exponentially after Whitt's appointment as director and became a large facility for a medium-sized city. In 1993, Whitt received the prestigious Dunbar Award from Louisiana Civil Service, named in honor of Charles E. Dunbar, Jr.
At the age of sixteen, Whitt joined the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. Over the years, he served the organization in various capacities, such as that as the leader of the Accreditation Inspection Team. He was recognized for his innovative zoo exhibits and designs. He represented the Alexandria zoo in worldwide conservation efforts to preserve endangered species. David Lind, past president of the civic group Friends of the Alexandria Zoo, said that Whitt was more than a zookeeper: "He really was the Renaissance man." He was a mentor to young zoo professionals, teen volunteers, the Boy Scouts, as well as other musicians.
Whitt's legacy of accomplishment
Jack Hanna, a world-renowned animal expert, often lauded Whitt and the Alexandria zoo over national television. Hanna recalled Whitt as humble and willing to offer his advice where he could help. Hanna recalled having been employed at a small zoo in central Florida when he needed advice on how to treat a sick animal. When Whitt learned of Hanna’s problem, he brought down a team to treat the animal. Hanna told Alexandria Daily Town Talk that "If all the people who ran zoos in this country were Leslies, we'd have no problems in any of our zoos."
Hanna said that Whitt could have accepted employment at larger, more prestigious zoos than Alexandria Zoological Park: "He could have run any zoo in the country ... but he loved that town. He loved the people there.. . . . People like that just don’t exist any more. You don’t replace a Leslie Whitt."
Alexandria Mayor Jacques Roy, who was four years old when Whitt accepted the zookeeper’s position, issued a statement of condolences for those mourning the "loss of a true son of Alexandria. Les was given a second chance at life [heart transplant], an opportunity he made the most of, crafting a sustainable legacy that will live as long as Alexandria does.”
Whitt died at Oschner's. Hundreds attended his funeral service held on August 20, 2008, at the Alexandria Riverfront Center. News of his death was carried in newspapers and on television stations not only throughout Louisiana but in other states. Burial followed at Greenlawn Cemetery in Natchez. Survivors included his wife of thirty-four years, Lee Ann Whitt, the educational curator of the zoo who is originally from Meadville in Franklin County in southwestern Mississippi; two daughters, Sarah Mathews, later Sarah Salley, and Hanna Lee Whitt, all of Alexandria, and two brothers, James M. Whitt of Natchez and John V. Whitt, Jr., of Dauphin Island, Alabama.
Mark Rose, a former Alexandria public works director who serves as vice president of design at Busch Gardens in Tampa, eulogized Whitt at the funeral. Rose said that Whitt as a very young man had the goal of transforming the Alexandria zoo into a top-notch facility. "He decided that he would devote his life to Alexandria and that zoo and turn it around and make it something special – and he did," Rose recalled.
In 2009, after an interim period, Mrs. Whitt succeeded her husband as zoo director.
In 2013, the Friends of the Alexandria Zoo unveiled a life-size $50,000 bronze statue of Whitt, which was created without charge by Bill Williamson of Tyler, Texas, based on photos of Whitt with a white tiger on loan to the zoo in 1994.
- Robert Leslie "Les" Whitt obituary, Alexandria Daily Town Talk, August 19, 2008:http://www.thetowntalk.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080819/OBITUARIES/80818026/1023
- "Alexandria Zoo Director Les Whitt dies", Alexandria Daily Town Talk, August 17, 2008, p. 1: http://www.thetowntalk.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080817/NEWS01/808170301&referrer=FRONTPAGECAROUSEL"
- "Alexandria Zoo director Les Whitt dies, age 56", Fort Mill Times, Fort Mill, South Carolina, August 20, 2008: http://www.fortmilltimes.com/124/story/262466.html
- "Les Whitt eulogized — 'Alexandria lost its heart'", Alexandria Daily Town Talk, August 20, 2008, p. 1: http://www.thetowntalk.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080820/NEWS01/80820019/-1/NEWS17
- Leigh Guidry, "Alexandria Zoo honors Whitt with statue", Alexandria Town Talk, May 19, 2013, pp. 1, 4A