Mulhouse Zoo and Botanical Garden is one of the oldest zoos in France. It was founded in 1868 by a group of industrial philanthropists in the Mulhouse region, with Charles Thierry-Mieg, jr. the main driving force behind this. Textiles and fabrics was what made Mulhouse a great and important city in 19th century Europe. Thierry-Mieg made his money in the textile industry, and his aim was to create a place where workers could relax, be educated and listen to music. The Zoo became such a place, where visitors, for 10 cents, could enjoy a nice stroll around the park, admire animals, hear live music and do gymnastics, in a pleasant setting.
The 4 hectare garden that was shaped according the current romantic fashion of that period opened its gate to the public on 13 September 1868. On opening day already 6000 people came to explore the park and enjoy the entertainment for the grand opening: music and fireworks. While at the same time they could watch deer, kangaroos and birds – the first animals that were housed at the Zoo.
When the park facilities were barely completed, thebroke out. Animals had to be sold and the park was closed down.
Between 1875 and 1893, the zoo changed hands twice: first it was run by a charitable organization, the Mulhouse Circle, it then passed into the hands of the Industrial Society of Mulhouse (SIM).
In the period between 1873 and 1882 the botanical garden was created and horticulturists were entrusted with the work on the vegetation, the footpaths and fences. By 1885, all the species of trees and shrubs had been labelled.
In 1893, additional investments were required to fulfil the ever expanding expectations of the visitors that crowded the place. Investments the SIM couldn’t afford. Therefore the City of Mulhouse took over the Zoo and its management in exchange for the School of Chemistry, that came into the hands of the SIM. The Zoo has remained in municipal ownership ever since. With the means of the City the zoo grounds extended to about 12 hectares and many improvements were introduced. The bear pit could be built to accommodate three bears of which two were donated by the Princess Hohenlohe, wife of the “Statthalter” (governor) of Alsace-Lorraine. After the turn of the century a bandstand was built, a restaurant opened on zoo grounds and a pool for seals became a well-appreciated addition to the park. The botanical garden was extended with remarkable trees of which some are still present: western red cedar, Japanese cedar and Turkish hazel.
In 1908 public transport from the city centre to the Zoo premises on the hill became operational. The maiden voyage of the electric tram (without rail), though, linking the Republic Square to the new zoo entrance, became a memorable trip for the officials and notables present. On the final downhill stage the brakes failed and caused the tram to descend at full speed. Fortunately it all ended well, and nobody got injured.
After years when Mulhouse had adapted to the new German régime it became French once again at the end of World War I, in 1918. Both World Wars had a devastating effect on the Zoo. The first global conflict led to a distribution of animals to other zoological facilities in Europe, while other animals perished. Additionally, the Zoo had to close down again.
While still suffering from these effects WWII broke out. In 1939, artillery was installed in the Zoo, while in 1944, the site became a supply base for the French Army. At the end of the conflict, the zoo was demolished. The Allied bombings at the time of the Liberation caused considerable damage to the town centre and beyond. About 600 trees were felled on the Zoo grounds during the war and all paths had been destroyed. Renovation lasted until 1948 and among the workers were prisoners of war – to whom Mulhouse Zoo owes the enclosures and the typical log cabins for addax and deer. By 1950 the Zoo had been restored and was considered one of the most beautiful in France.
As of 1965 the Zoo’s educational mission is taken more seriously by first the establishment of the ‘petite école du zoo’ (the small zoo school) that was run by volunteer teachers, followed by providing species information on panels at the enclosures. It marks the birth of the educational services, which for instance hosts 14,000 children yearly in their programmes nowadays.
Meanwhile, the Zoo further developed its attractions and was able to extend the parkland up to 25 hectares over the years. For its centennial, in 1968, an innovative primate enclosure was opened. Visitors could admire the monkeys expressing their natural behaviour while swinging from artificial liana to artificial liana or climbing a rock. In 1977, a nature trail was created. In this period the ‘Friends of the Zoo’ association that had been established played an important role with their financial support. In twenty years, it donated over 300,000 euro (2 million francs) to allow development of various exhibits, such as an aviary and enclosures for the llama, cheetah, cats, sitatunga and pond turtles.
Another step in modernising the Zoo’s mission was achieved in the 1980s when the zoo became a centre for research, conservation and breeding of endangered species. The opening of the lemur building marked this turning point. The Mulhouse Zoo not only held several of these endangered primate species from Madagascar in captivity, but was entrusted with the coordination of the global conservation programme of some lemur subspecies as well.
Gradually, Mulhouse Zoo and Botanical Gardens became a model for the zoological as well as the botanical community. In 1982, it organised the first exhibition of bulbous plants with 38,000 tulip, hyacinths and daffodils. And in 1990, it was the only zoo outside Brazil to have on display yellow-breasted capuchin, for which the Zoo now coordinates the EEP (European Endangered species Programme). More rare and endangered species followed and became part of the animal collection, such as rare primates from South America, Amur leopard, Amur tiger, Grevy’s zebra and Asian lion.
When the living conditions of zoo animals finally received more and more attention globally, Mulhouse Zoo was one of the first to adopt new enclosure design features. Animal enclosures were developed according the species’ natural habitat and the ‘new generation’ exhibit for felines set an example in Europe, in 1989. In the same period specific attention was paid to botanical conservation activities regarding indigenous plant species and developments such as the (2000−2001), the avenue of hydrangeas and the creation of a collection of more than 450 varieties of rhododendrons.
Many of the animal species on display at Mulhouse Zoo are endangered. The Zoo participates in almost 100 European or international breeding programmes or other conservation activities. Already 30 years the Zoo is involved in the preservation of the remaining populations of lemurs, gibbons, monkeys, turtles and capuchins and . To contribute to the latter the Zoo presents its resident species as ambassadors for their wild cousins to raise awareness for biodiversity protection among its many visitors. The Zoo has particularly specialised in the conservation of species less popular than the larger flagship species such as gorillas and elephants. Instead it shows tamarins, lemurs and capuchins, that are regarded equally important for the survival of the ecosystems.
Many new enclosures were realised since 2008, with the exhibits for the maned wolf, the Arctic fox, Bactrian deer and musk ox in 2013 as the latest additions. While the opening of the polar bear enclosure in 2014 finalised the Great North exhibit ( l’Espace Grand Nord).
Last but not least, the park is listed by the French Ministry of Culture as one of the Notable Gardens of France.
(Source: website Mulhouse Zoo; website Comité des Parcs et Jardins de France; website Mulhouse tourism; Wikipedia)