By DIANE PHILLIPS
As The Bahamas prepares for yet another state funeral and honours are bestowed on new deserving recipients, a man who brought joy and wonder to tens of thousands and fame to The Bahamas slipped quietly away almost unnoticed.
His name was Lexion Louissant. He told people to call him ‘Joe’ and for 50 years from 1959 until he retired a half century later, he strode into the centre arena at Ardastra Gardens, Zoo and Conservation Centre in Nassau followed by a flock of squawking flamingos. Rough estimates put his performance record at more than 40,000 shows.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Ardastra’s world-famous marching flamingos were to The Bahamas what the swimming pigs of Exuma are today. They were the country’s most famous attraction, drawing visitors from around the globe to experience something so unlikely - a leggy troupe of flamingos in a military-like drill with a touch of humour thrown in - they had to see it for themselves. Joe, who received his initial training from Ardastra founder Jamaican botanist Hedley Edwards before taking over the troupe of world-famous marching flamingos, was once the subject of a 17-page spread in National Geographic called “Pretty in Pink”. He also became their protector.
Visitors to Ardastra marvelled as the flamingos began their twice or thrice daily march. ‘Hup, two, three, four, about face, turn right,” Joe would bark and they would follow as audiences looked on in wonder and amazement.
As they marched, Joe told the story of the West Indian flamingo, what they ate, how they reproduced, what role they play in nature, why they were threatened with extinction, combining the serious side of conservation of the threatened species with the performance.
It was Joe who encouraged school children on field trips and visitors from afar to come forward at the end of the show and stand on one leg for photos. There must be framed photos of children and their teachers, parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents making momentary flamingos of themselves on bookshelves around the globe, many snapped so long ago the Brownie was the camera of choice and a selfie would have just been a misspelled word.
Ironically, as performances were staged at Ardastra, the threatened West Indian flamingo was making a comeback. Thanks to legislation barring the capture or consumption of the national bird and the Bahamas National Trust and the US Audubon Society, conservation efforts at the Inagua National Park were succeeding and numbers zoomed from almost extinct to a flock of nearly 50,000, though we were warned only continuing efforts would guarantee long-term survival of the species.
The same success was not always the case for Ardastra. After years of fascination with the leggy ballerinas, there were times in the 1990s when business was slow and only a few people dotted the rows of wooden bleachers in the small arena. But Joe and his flock of flamingo followers never let the lack of a full house get in the way of a chuckle-a-minute performance. When a flamingo got out of line, he would scold it like a naughty child and in a flash, it would scurry as fast as a flamingo that doesn’t fly can to take its place in the parade of pink.
The occasional leggy actor who elected to fall out of formation got the kind of look usually reserved for a defiant child and audiences chuckled as that recalcitrant bird mended his ways and rejoined the march.
It is hard to say whether the show would have been so readily applauded in today’s times as it was when it first started. There is greater sensitivity now to training of animals, birds, mammals and dolphins for entertainment yet in the decades during which opinions evolved tens of thousands of adults and children had a unique opportunity to see firsthand the majesty of the regal flamingos.
Perhaps their experience would make them greater protectors later in life – just as Joe was. Not only did Joe begin his remarkable escapade to bring the marching flamingos to the immediacy of a small ring, he became the guardian father of the flock. When a storm approached, Joe cared for his birds as if they were his children. When the heat was too intense, it was he who ensured they spent more time in their well-shaded pond and less time in the sun.
Through an arrangement with the Bahamas National Trust, Ardastra was the only place outside Inagua National Park where the pink flamingo was protected yet the public could get up close and personal with the national bird.
Ardastra never made money and when its owner, Norman Solomon, was alive, he thanked his restaurant chain, Wendy’s, every day for ‘feeding’ the injured birds, exotic animals and flamingos at Ardastra. Every Wendy’s burger that didn’t cut corners helped keep the gates of Ardastra open, he said on more than one occasion.
Since Mr Solomon’s death in 2008, his widow Katherine Solomon, has worked with the small staff to keep Ardastra current, sharing animal and bird stories online, caring for wounded birds, hosting hands-on nature summer camps for local kids, teaching them about a range of species from the wide-eyed ring-tailed Madagascar lemur to the two-toed sloth, a creature so slow it is said by the time it reaches the top of a tree, it has forgotten what it was going for.
Ardastra is both a then kind of place and a now kind of place.
To understand how it evolved you have to appreciate the history. In 1937, Jamaican horticulturist Hedley Edwards acquired the approximately four acres of land at the northern end of Chippingham, much of the land marsh. Edwards dreamed of creating a tropical garden fed by the natural swamp and nurtured by the sun. He planted all manner of flowering shrubs, fruit trees and hardwoods, including an Indian banyan. Today, its base is more than 60 feet across.
Over the years, he carved out pathways and created tranquil spaces, a wooden bench under a coppice canopy, a secret hideaway here, a bridge over a pond there. Edwards was fascinated by the possibilities, planting Allamanda (golden trumpet), desert roses, crown of thorn, red ginger, Royal Poinciana, firecracker plants, bougainvillea. But he also knew he needed birds if his garden was to flourish and fruits to blossom.
He brought in the first flamingos and in 1959, took Lexion Louissant from Haiti under his wing, nicknamed him Joe, and put him in charge of the small flock of flamingos he brought in to brighten up his parcel of tropical paradise.
For 50 years, even long after Edwards death and during a period of time between owners, Joe remained faithful to his flock and they to him. His entire life revolved around the birds and life at Ardastra. A regular visitor would walk in and know they would find Joe with a Moluccan cockatoo named Toby on his shoulder, or he’d be ‘chatting’ with a macaw or looking after a rare born-in-captivity Bahama parrot.
Ardastra’s meandering gardens remain a welcome explosion of colour and fragrance, one of the stunning places of natural beauty in New Providence. The birds are there, the marching flamingos perform three times daily, but the man who gave Ardastra’s marching flamingos to the world and made us all appreciate the royal nature of the regal national bird is gone. He died on July 31.
He never did receive an honour. He was just another working Haitian Bahamian who helped make The Bahamas famous and taught Bahamas National Trust staff members like Shelly Cant the importance of respect for God’s lesser creatures.