Monkeying Around in Paris

Paris wildlife
A new friend....
Target practice? Oh, tranquilizer darts...

How many orangutans have you met in Paris? It’s a question we ask ourselves almost every day, and finally, I can stand up and say, proudly, “I’ve met two, yes two orangutans in Paris.”

During last week’s event, “Paris Face Cachée,” Paris showed its hidden sides. I’d ignored this event before because, like all major events, they draw crowds. And I hate crowds. I will only voluntarily join thousands of people in the street when we can run 26 miles and eat bananas for hours (yes, the marathon is coming up in April, and I’m prepping).

But for whatever reason this year I clicked on the program to see what was happening, and decided to join a backstage tour of the Menagerie, the little zoo in the Jardin des Plantes. It was on a Friday afternoon after my class, conveniently up the street from the zoo, so I paid 30 euros for two tickets, and I dragged my partner in crime (as well as sanctioned, legal events) to the zoo’s entrance. 

The tour took us very literally into the backstage portions of the zoo, including the kitchen, the clinic, and behind the cages. Opened in 1794, it’s the oldest zoo in the world after one in Vienna. Side note: This is the zoo that provided a lot of pricey meat in 1870 during the Prussian siege. I don't think any of the current tenants are legacies...

Our guide taught us quite a bit about how they raise the animals and shuffle them between zoos. It was also a holding pen for many of the residents at the Zoo de Vincennes during its renovation (it finally reopened last autumn). 

We saw what the 1800 or so critters munch on for lunch and dinner – including samples of the 12-13 metric tons of veggies and fruits that cost 1.5 million euros each week. Don’t complain about your food bill. The rations aren't  leftovers and restaurant scraps, according to our guide, who called the fresh produce 5-star quality. I even saw some soy sauce on shelf for the guinea pig stir-fry, I assumed.

We poked around in the freezer – frozen rabbits, guinea pigs, and a bag of baby mice were all on the menu for carnivores. Yummy.

"It takes a lot of dog food to feed all those monkeys..."

Afterwards, we headed behind locked doors to the inner workings of the primate pavilion to get up close and personal with two of the orangutans, to learn about how the handlers condition and train these apes (not monkeys). Our handler took us to the younger one (another group met her mother in the habitat next door). She showed us what the orangutan could do, reinforcing her various gestures and movements with bits of diced fruit. If only older French women at the grocery store check-out could be trained as easily to wait their turn...

The idea is to have the animals trained so that cleaning and medical tests can be performed easily. The orangutan opened her mouth and offered her ears to her handler on command, a sort of Pavlovian reflex. Apparently the orangutans understand French, but the handler admitted that we can't really confirm that. The training is a way to keep handler and the handled safe, since apparently zookeeper is a dangerous and often deadly profession. Even in Paris.

I quickly crossed that off my potential jobs list.

It was adorable, but also creepy watching this very alert and aware creature that didn't look so different from some of the people in the group.

After a quick trip to the clinic where we learned how they tranquilize the animals (dart gun, duh), we headed out, a bit wiser, a bit more aware, and with a few bottles of animal-grade drugs.

Just kidding, but they do have Smecta (like Pepto Bismol in the US) on hand in case the leopards get sick tummies. Who knew?