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.