Hang out with Orangutans in Paris at la Ménagerie, Jardin des Plantes

Hang out with Orangutans in Paris at la Ménagerie, Jardin des Plantes
A walk along the Seine through a sculpture garden to a zoo; yes, Paris is still Paris, a place to walk and discover wonders… Meet my buddy the orangutan, hanging above me in his glass home hardly a 15-minute walk past Notre Dame. One of the things I adore about Paris is that it is a walkable city and if you are a walker like me, and if you take the time to look around as you walk, you can make wonderful discoveries even if you are a frequent visitor. That is what happened to me one afternoon 10 years ago when I looked across Quai Saint-Bernard from the Seine and spotted behind an iron fence what appeared to be a huge and beautiful park, previously unknown to me. I crossed the quai, entered through the gates, and not very many minutes later– after taking in the huge expanses of lawns and flowers and paths and buildings of what I learned was the Jardin des Plantes– I spotted animal enclosures and a large building with stone hippopotamus sculptures. I stopped at a hut, paid a fee, and walked in to discover, in the heart of the 5th arrondissement, La Ménagerie. Yes indeed, there is a charming zoo on the Left Bank– a zoo with a colorful history; a zoo that once housed the first giraffe to set foot in France. The Ménagerie, in the northwest corner of the wonderfully verdant Jardin des Plantes, today houses over 2000 animals, representing 200 species, almost a third of which are endangered. It is part of the National Research Institute of the National Natural History Museum which is also situated in the Jardin des Plantes– facilitating the academic study of the animals by doctors and zoologists. It is the second oldest zoo in Europe and is large enough to be interesting but sufficiently small and accessible to permit a short visit rather than an excursion, and to allow relatively close proximity to the animals. Sure, there is a much larger and more modern zoo at the Bois de Vincennes (the Parc Zoologique de Paris)– which is a state-of-the-art, bio-zoned zoo, with plenty of lions and bears and giraffes, and which reopened in 2014 after a six-year reconstruction hiatus, but a visit requires a metro ride into the far side of the 12th, and I’m guessing (from its size and features) would require at least a half day excursion. I’ve enjoyed La Ménagerie after just a slow stroll through the 5th arrondissement as part of a typical Parisian day; and there is plenty to see, including a wonderful snow leopard; plenty of snakes and reptiles; crocodiles; giant porcupines; monkeys and apes (featuring my friend the large and surly orangutan); deer and other hoofed animals; kangaroos; winged predators skulking on high ledges, their wings held partially spread as if they were a dracula cape; and the bright pink display of a large group of flamingos. The difference between the two zoos appears to me to be not too dissimilar to that between Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo – in Lincoln Park – which I can walk to along the Lakefront from my apartment near the Chicago Loop; and the Brookfield Zoo, out in the suburbs. La Ménagerie, le zoo du Jardin des Plantes by mnhn So now, follow me as I yet again meander down the wide riverside paths along the Seine heading east from just behind Notre Dame, past the contemporary sculptures by the likes of Brancusi and Zadkine in the beautiful Jardin Tino Rossi sculpture gardens, past the locals spending their afternoon on benches and raised stone seatings near the water, past the boats tied up along the shore, until we cross the quai Saint-Bernard and enter the Jardin des Plantes near where the quai meets Rue Cuvier. Or, we can instead– as I do from time to time– have a few drinks with the ghost of Hemingway at his favorite drinking hole on the Place de la Contrescarpe (at the top of rue Mouffetard) and then walk 15 minutes down rue Lacépède and enter the Jardin des Plantes on the west side at the corner of Lacépède and rues Linné and Geoffroy St Hilaire. This route has the benefit of taking us to an entrance that is right across from several lovely little restaurants–and is also an entrance into one of the quieter and most thickly vegetative part of the jardin where the paths are narrower, you can sit for a bit on a quiet bench, or you can walk through the intriguing hedge labyrinth that climbs around a hill– ending at the cupola on its peak. There is a concession stand right near this entrance for a cup of coffee. A Little Bit of History La Ménagerie of the Jardin des Plantes is one of the very oldest zoos in Europe – officially designated as a public zoo in 1794 when the only other such zoo was the Schonbruun zoo in Vienna (the Tiergarten Schönbrunn). It was actually born in 1662 when Louis XIV created it as a royal ménagerie in his park at Versailles at the request of the French Academy of Science. That earlier version was in a Baroque style with a large pavilion surrounded by circular paths and a walking path through the animal enclosures and cages. Interestingly, at the same time, Louis XIV also opened an earlier iteration of the Vincennes zoo – not as a place for animals to be viewed with curiosity or admiration, but, rather, as a venue for brutal animal fights (such as a fight between…

Lead photo credit : Oranguatan at La Ménagerie, photo by Michele Kurlander

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Michele is a corporate lawyer and writer who visits France often and is convinced she must have been French in an earlier life -probably hanging around with Ernest Hemingway during what she calls his "cute" stage, living on Cardinal Lemoine and writing on rue Descartes - which just happens to be be her usual stomping ground. From her first time in Paris and that first feeling of familiarity she has returned often as if it is her second home. Now the hotels are Airbnb apartments and she enjoys being a short-term local and shopping at the market, cooking her own meals. Sitting on her own Paris balcony , a wineglass or morning coffee in hand, she writes her journal, describing her walks around town as the proverbial flâneur and taking notes for the future’s stories and travel pieces.