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

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

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Panther in the Menagerie, Paris
Panther courtesy of La Ménagerie, le zoo du Jardin des Plantes/ Cohen

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.

Oranguatan at La Ménagerie
Orangutan at La Ménagerie, photo by Michele Kurlander

[Check out contributor Sue Aran’s recent article, The Fabulous History of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris.]

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.

Jardin Tino Rossi
Jardin Tino Rossi, photo by Michele Kurlander

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 an elephant and a tiger staged in 1682). Fortunately, the latter zoo was closed by the end of Louis XIV’s reign.

Pink flamingos in Paris
Pink flamingos in Paris, photo by Michele Kurlander

The Versailles Ménagerie continued to be maintained by Kings Louis XV and XVI, but not   in the same condition as when the Sun King reigned, since they were not inclined to spend the money or the attention. Though Louis XV loved collecting the animals, he did not have the money to take care of them or much interest in their well being. An elephant was forced to walk over 300 miles from the coast to arrive at the zoo in 1772, and a wall built to enclose rhinoceroses rapidly started to crumble from lack of maintenance. Louis XVI was of course concerned about other things (such as losing his head). Nevertheless, the zoo was kept alive and even restocked with animals commandeered by Louis XVI from all over the world, to be observed by the Paris public – which had grown interested in all natural subjects. (Partially, I have read, because of the popular works of Georges-Louis Leclerc, count de Buffon, the famous French naturalist and keeper of the Jardin du Roi– the royal botanical garden, now the Jardin des Plantes, and of its museum– and author of the widely read Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière (1749–1804), 50 volumes of which were published by his death).

crocodile at La Ménagerie, Paris
crocodile at La Ménagerie, photo by Michele Kurlander

Louis XVI left Versailles, of course, against his will in 1789 and the Jacobins decided such fancy zoological gardens were offensive and the revolutionary public could little afford to have non-human creatures eating when they could not, so even though the zoo remained at Versailles, many of the animals were set free by the Revolutionary public, except for what were considered the more exotic ones. The National Assembly in 1793 decided that exotic animals in private hands were to be donated to the Ménagerie in Versailles or killed, stuffed and donated to the scientists who worked at the Jardin des Plantes. The scientists decided to let the animals live. The Versailles royal Ménagerie was eventually closed and the remaining creatures moved in 1794 to the Jardin des Plantes, which had been founded in 1626 when Henry XIII authorized his physicians to create a royal medicinal herb garden.

Since the Jardin des Plantes was not in 1794 set up to keep animals, the animals were at first kept in horrendous condition in the basement of the museum or in a greenhouse or stables. I understand that at one time there were as many as 32 mammals and 26 birds all in the same room, kept in the poor condition and close proximity that we think of with respect to carnival and traveling circus menageries.

Many of the animals did not survive, so new animals needed to be acquired.

The giraffe of Charles X
The giraffe of Charles X pictured in Annales des sciences naturelles, Audouin, Brongniart et Dumas, t. 11, 1827/ Public Domain

Zarafa, the Giraffe who Inspired a Hair-Do

One of the most interesting stories about animal acquisitions was the arrival in 1827 of a gift from Muhammad Ali of Egypt to King Charles X of France – the giraffe later designated with the name Zarafa – whose life story and arrival in France was featured at an exposition in the Cabinet of the Jardin des Plantes that I visited in 2012. There have also been books written about her.

She and the two other giraffes given by Muhammad Ali to the London and Vienna zoos at the same time were the first giraffes seen in Europe in over 300 years.

She was carried from the Sudan on the back of a camel, then transported down the Nile by boat to Alexandria, then on a ship to Marseille accompanied by an Arab groom and a servant of the French consul-general in Egypt, along with three cows for sustenance during her travels. She travelled with her head extended through a hole cut through the deck, and arrived in Marseille in October of 1826 where she spent the winter and then walked to Paris with naturalist Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. She wore a yellow coat and shoes provided by St. Hilaire and 41 days later arrived at the Jardin des Plantes in July of 1827.

The giraffe – called sometimes le bel animal du roi (the beautiful animal of the king)– was so renowned that over 100,000 people came to see her; Balzac wrote a story about her; she was painted by artist Jacques Raymond Brascassat; she was the model for spotted fabrics and painted images on all sorts of art objects; and she was the inspiration for a strange, tall hairdo “à la giraffe” featured in Paris salons.

A new hair style, à la Girafe
A new hair style, à la Girafe. The Repository of Arts, Literature, Fashions &c. Third Series, Volume 10/ Public Domain

By the time Zarafa arrived, there was a building to house her since buildings had finally been constructed during the first 40 years of the 19th century – including monkey and bird houses; bear pits; the rotunda commissioned by Napoleon to provide housing for large plant eaters such as the elephants and giraffes (today it is occupied by large tortoises); and a “fauverie” for big cats. I have often seen artists set up on the pathway near the glass vitrines painting or drawing as the beautiful beasts pace back and forth. Some additional new buildings went up at the beginning of the 20th century and then, nothing further, except for some necessary repairs, until 1983 when a new enclosure for diurnal birds of prey went up. Many of the buildings are listed and therefore cannot be changed much.

iguana at La Ménagerie
iguana at La Ménagerie, photo by Michele Kurlander

I have been back to La Ménagerie a number of times, and have yet to find it unduly crowded. On the contrary, it is pleasant to walk down the paths, to watch an occasional artist standing in front of the glass of the leopard’s home, and to see the many interesting residents without many bodies between me and them.

When you are finished with your visit, do take the time to wander through the rest of the Jardin des Plantes, and to visit the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle at the south end of the Jardin.

Also, I recommend both the pasta restaurant (Jardin des Pates at 4 rue Lacépède) and the classic French food at Les Trois Carafes on 3 rue Linné – both right out the jardin‘s Lacépède entrance.

La Ménagerie, le zoo du Jardin des Plantes, 57 Rue Cuvier, 75005 Paris. Open every day of the year, hours change seasonally. Check the official website for details. Ticket price is 13€; free for children under three years old.

La Ménagerie, Paris
wandering the verdant paths of 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.

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