A Tasmanian tiger by the tail in Paris
“I love Paris in the springtime,” crooned the likes of Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald in the 50s and 60s. French singer Vanessa Paradis reprised the Cole Porter song a few years ago. Undoubtedly there is something beautiful everywhere you look in Paris but who can resist a spring garden? In the 5th arrondissement on the Left Bank, the 28ha Jardin des Plantes (botanic garden) was set up as the Royal Garden of Medicinal Plants in 1626 by Jean Heroard and Guy de La Brosse, physicians to Louis XIII, and became Jardin des Plantes following the French Revolution in the late 18th century.
The Museum of Natural History was established here in 1793 and the Menagerie the following year. One of the oldest zoological gardens in the world, it originally housed survivors from the royal menagerie at the Palace of Versailles and eventually expanded to include circus and street animals and exotic creatures from abroad. Legend has it that during the four-month Prussian Siege of Paris in 1870-71, numbers were depleted as hunger forced Parisians to eat most of the animals in the city.
Jardin des Plantes now houses several other research facilities for natural and human sciences, including a botanical school, a research library, and galleries showcasing evolution, geology and mineralogy, palaeontology and anatomy. There are also greenhouses of tropical forests, arid zones and New Caledonian plants, as well as a maze, outdoor sculptures, and a variety of beautiful plantings, from alpine, rose, iris and perennial, to rock and kitchen and an ecology garden. Most intriguing of all for me, near the southeast tree-lined walkway there is a Carousel of Extinct and Endangered Animals, or Dodo Manege, where one of the featured animals is the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger.
This 1930s-style merry-go-round, installed here in 1992, was the inspiration of a scientist who used to work in the nearby natural history museum, and who saw a chance to combine something delightful for children with an ecological message. Junior thrillseekers can ride a variety of animals, from the dodo, triceratops and sivatherium (a precursor to the giraffe) to the Barbary lion and horned turtle; there are also endangered species whirling around, such as the gorilla and the panda.
I head straight for the thylacine for my ride as slightly tinny fairground music plays jauntily over loudspeakers. The proprietor seems delighted to hear I am from Tasmania — he says it’s his dream to visit there, and as it’s been my dream to be in Paris, we get along famously. Another fascinating attraction is La Fontaine aux Lions, a sculpture near the gateway leading into rue GeoffroySaint-Hilaire, which consists of two bronze lions atop a wall; one is devouring a human foot. I’m ghoulishly intrigued. Sculptor Henri Jacquemont, who constructed it in 1863, designed it so water from a basin behind the lions would flow into the fountain below.
I can’t help reflecting on the story of the zoo animals being eaten during the Paris siege, and ruminating on “circle of life” poetic symmetries — the bronze lion eats a human, and the humans eat the animals, in some cases rendering them at risk or extinct. It is a sobering thought. And now for some live animals? There are 1200 creatures here in a small zoo, representing about 180 species, a heartening celebration of biodiversity.
Animal-motif carousel, above; Museum of Natural History, above right