PARIS – Its gray, man-made mountain that might lure King Kong still protrudes over treetops, but nearly everything else has changed as Paris' zoo prepares to re-open after a multi-year, multimillion-dollar makeover.
A lone lion was lounging, the baboons burrowing, and lemurs leaping from branch to branch as the Zoological Park of Paris opened for a herd of journalists on Wednesday before a grand re-opening this weekend.
Gradually, and with no lack of logistical headaches, the 80-year-old Paris attraction returned to life: Macaws cackled, red ibises perched on one foot on a greenhouse rail, and the stench of giraffe manure wafted through a cavernous indoor pen — certifying that, yep, this is a bona fide zoo.
The 215-foot Grand Boulder, the zoo's main landmark (which actually covers a water tower) has been touched up, but isn't quite ready to host visitors for its panoramic views, officials said. When it does it may help lure visitors out to the zoo's site near the eastern suburb of Vincennes, and away from Paris' many other highlights.
When the zoo temporarily closed in 2008, its crumbling displays were a safety hazard. Without major refurbishment since its opening in 1934, the zoo was a concrete jungle of traditional animal cages. Now managers trumpet an unparalleled, top-to-bottom renovation: Winding pathways, lush vegetation, and 21st-century displays with fewer fences and cages — and clever landscaping to separate the wildlife from its watchers. The greenhouse as long as a football field features not-so-shy grey-winged trumpeters strutting across a walkway (and at times pecking at photographers' camera lenses), and a lethargic West Indian manatee.
WHAT MAKES THIS ZOO DIFFERENT?
Instead of by type, the animals have been grouped by region of origin — and there are five: Madagascar, Patagonia, Guyana, Europe and Sahel-Sudan, the largest single area in the zoo and home to African savannah roamers. Rolling terrain and artificial rocks point to the effort to re-create the natural ecosystems, as best possible. "It's like a journey around the planet," said zoo director Sophie Ferreira Le Morvan. Giraffes and ostriches co-habit one display area, zebras and rhinos another. A male lion, somewhat understandably, has his own pen until three lionesses arrive.
WHAT ARE THE STAR ATTRACTIONS?
Giraffes. Zoo officials say the 16 giraffes — some with ancestors that were here in 1934 — amount to the largest grouping of its kind in Europe. The giraffes' indoor dwelling offers face-to-face viewing. While many animals were shipped away to other zoos during the renovation, the giraffes stayed put, to literally "oversee" the work, as the cheeky zookeepers put it. The lion called Neron (the French namesake of Roman emperor Nero) and pack of European wolves are likely kid-friendly sights.
HOW DIFFICULT HAS THE REOPENING BEEN?
Most of the animals that left for the renovation won't be returning, so like modern-day counterparts of Noah the zookeepers have had to bring in new ones. To make sure the animals are happy in their new digs the staff are letting the creatures adapt at their own speed — sometimes a snail's pace. One young addax was spooked at the unfamiliar sight of zebras. Due to space constraints, there are no elephants. Chief veterinarian Alexis Lecu said the one animal he wants is a platypus, but "we'll have to ask the Australian government."
BY THE NUMBERS
The zoo has some 180 species — including 74 bird and 42 mammal species — totaling over 1,000 animals (aside from the insects). The budget for the renovation, under a public-private partnership, was $230 million. Signage at the displays is French only, but audio guides are available in several languages. Full-rate admission ranges from about $15 for kids aged 3 to 11, to 22 euros for adults.