A Tas­ma­nian tiger by the tail in Paris

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - AMANDA DOU­BLE

“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

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