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His­tory

The founder of the Zoo, Louis Gay, started his career as a café owner. Sell­ing bev­er­ages is a cul­tural her­itage in the region his father’s fam­ily comes from, and exper­tise of the restau­rant busi­ness is trans­mit­ted from father to son. Not always smoothly and per­ma­nently, as it turned out with Louis. His grand­fa­ther from mother’s side was a thresh­ing con­trac­tor and sup­ple­mented his income by run­ning a small farm. The out­door life at the coun­try­side and the free­dom Louis expe­ri­enced when­ever he vis­ited his grand­par­ents in his child­hood was some­thing that stuck in his mind. It was as a seed that needed some time to grow. A lot of time actu­ally, because Louis Gay was a café/​restaurant/​hotel owner in Doué-​la-​Fontaine for 31 years. But every spring he longed for the coun­try­side, and it was just a mat­ter of time that Louis, as an adult, began to dream of hav­ing his own prop­erty pop­u­lated with var­i­ous ani­mals. What remained was to find such a place. His new adven­ture began when in 1959 he dis­cov­ered an excep­tional site, an aban­doned quarry in his home­town Doué-​la-​Fontaine. In 1960 Louis finally bought the site, and made a good deal: 1 ha for 5,000 francs. His sig­na­ture gave the quarry a sec­ond life.

The Zoo opened its doors to the pub­lic on 14 July 1961. As it was con­structed inside the old quarry it was called the Zoo of the Quar­ries (‘Zoo des Minières’). The first vis­i­tors dis­cov­ered lus­cious veg­e­ta­tion when enter­ing the path through the quarry. Along­side the shady path the ani­mals were on dis­play in troglodyte caves or wooden enclo­sures. The main attrac­tion was Asma, a young lioness obtained from a pass­ing cir­cus. The first year, the park wel­comed 8,000 vis­i­tors, who saw exotic and wild species such as a marabou, deer, bad­gers, an owl, pheas­ants and herons. But dur­ing the first years the Zoo also served as a refuge for a num­ber of domes­tic ani­mals, such as dogs that were aban­doned by their own­ers. These first years were tough on Louis and his rel­a­tives. They worked dur­ing the day at the ‘Hotel d’Anjou’ and in the evening at the danc­ing ‘Caveau du Trone’ – both estab­lish­ment owned by the Gay fam­ily, while they spent all their free time main­tain­ing the park and tak­ing turns dur­ing the open­ing hours.

Over the fol­low­ing years Louis Gay acquired new plots. Always respect­ing the integrity of the site, new pas­sages were dug out. The ani­mal col­lec­tion was extended with new species such as Chita the first res­i­dent chim­panzee, a lama, a drom­e­dary camel, a yellow-​and-​blue macaw, a vul­ture and already in 1967 Sidonie the first Colom­bian spi­der mon­key arrived – a species that is still on dis­play at Doué-​la-​Fontaine Zoo. So the Zoo grew in size, ani­mal col­lec­tion and fame, mostly in the imme­di­ate vicin­ity and neigh­bour­ing areas.

When in 1972, Louis’ son Pierre joined his father in the man­age­ment of the Zoo he imme­di­ately started intro­duc­ing changes to the enclo­sure sizes. Louis saw that improve­ments were nec­es­sary and accepted the change, though it meant less cash, more space – qual­ity before quan­tity. Grad­u­ally, the Zoo attracted more vis­i­tors, and not only because Louis started pro­mot­ing his Zoo very effec­tively at coun­try fairs and shows accom­pa­nied by Asma the lioness and Chita the chimp, both on a leash. Still, Pierre looked for more answers to his ques­tions how to fur­ther improve their Zoo.

In search for answers Pierre went, in May 1978, on the advice of Noël Chapon, a her­petol­o­gist from Lyon, to visit the zoo of Ger­ald Dur­rell on the Isle of Jer­sey. This was a cru­cial visit, because at Jer­sey he saw another way of keep­ing ani­mals in cap­tiv­ity and how the zoo focussed on safe­guard­ing endan­gered species. Pierre Gay decided that they should ded­i­cate their efforts also to the con­ser­va­tion of endan­gered species and back in Doué-​la-​Fontaine he shared this vision with his father who, after some per­sua­sion, agreed.

Due to the involve­ment in ex-​situ con­ser­va­tion of threat­ened species and the rich­ness of its ani­mal col­lec­tion Doué-​la-​Fontaine Zoo became the first French pri­vate park to join the Euro­pean Asso­ci­a­tion of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) in the 1980s.

In June 1996, the Zoo organ­ised the EAZA annual con­fer­ence. Nearly 300 par­tic­i­pants, such as coor­di­na­tors of species breed­ing pro­grammes, vet­eri­nar­i­ans, biol­o­gists and edu­ca­tional lead­ers met in Saumur to take stock of activ­i­ties in Euro­pean zoos, and antic­i­pate the future. The event rein­forced the legit­i­macy of the Doué-​la-​Fontaine Zoo, whose peers already appre­ci­ated its involve­ment and con­tri­bu­tion within the Euro­pean zoo com­mu­nity. The facil­i­ties at Doué-​la-​Fontaine of the Gay fam­ily enjoyed high esteem and has since become a ref­er­ence across the Euro­pean continent.

Nev­er­the­less, in 1998, an unfor­tu­nate acci­dent hap­pened when two female jaguars escaped from their enclo­sure. One of them killed a five year old child, and was imme­di­ately shot by a police­man, while the other was first cap­tured and euthanised shortly after the inci­dent. A black page in the Zoo’s history.

When in 2001 the Zoo cel­e­brated its for­ti­eth anniver­sary it was decided that this should not go unno­ticed. Pierre Gay decided to sup­port forty con­ser­va­tion projects around the world, launch­ing the Nature Projects (‘Pro­jets Natures’). The involve­ment in all these in-​situ nature projects made the Zoo engage with the global world of conservation.

At the same time dur­ing the 2000s the park itself was fur­ther devel­oped and improved. The begin­ning of the new cen­tury became the decade of major infra­struc­tural improve­ment projects. The new entrance was built in the win­ter of 2002, the 2 hectare black rhi­noc­eros val­ley in 2005, the new panorama restau­rant with its ter­race over­look­ing the giraffe and zebra enclo­sure in 2006, the giant otter enclo­sure in 2007 and the Great Aviary was inau­gu­rated at the end of spring in 2009. This Great Aviary ded­i­cated to South Amer­i­can bird species is arguably the largest aviary of Europe. Dur­ing all those major-​scale projects the con­ti­nu­ity of the fam­ily busi­ness was strength­ened with the arrival of Fran­cois, Pierre’s son in the man­age­ment staff.

In 2011, on the occa­sion of its fifti­eth anniver­sary, the Zoo offi­cially became known as Bioparc Doue-​la-​Fontaine.

Louis Gay, founder of the Zoo died 14 Sep­tem­ber 2015 at the age of 87. He left behind a won­der­ful legacy to his son and his grand­son, Pierre and François Gay, who run the site since Louis retired in 1999.

(Source: Wikipedia; Bioparc Zoo de Doué-​la-​Fontaine, 19612011, de Père en Fils pour une même pas­sion, pub­lished 2011; Le Kiosque )

Goal: 7000 tigers in the wild

Tiger range countries map

Tiger map” (CC BY 2.5) by Sander­son et al., 2006.

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