The menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes is in its essence a zoological garden set up in a botanical garden. The Jardin des Plantes, then the Jardin du Roi, was established in the 17th century as a garden for medicinal herbs by two of King Louis XIII’s physicians. His successor, King Louis XIV or the Sun King, had established a menagerie (on request of the members of the Academy of Science of France) in the park of the palace of Versailles in 1662. It was the first menagerie in Baroque style, with its prominent feature the circular layout, in the middle of which stood a beautiful pavilion. In the perimeter of such a pavilion was a walking path surrounded by enclosures and cages. After Louis XIV died, there was a lack of attention paid to the Versailles menagerie by his successors, Louis XV and XVI, in the 1700s. Like the monarchs of that time, they were no admirers of all the ceremony and etiquette favoured by their predecessor. Louis XV particularly disliked the theatricality and symbolism of the public displays. Nevertheless, he maintained the menagerie and numerous animals were held in captivity. Even new arrivals were accommodated, including a two-horned rhinoceros in 1770 and an elephant in 1775.
Although under the reign of Louis XVI the menagerie became populated with domestic species to create an idealised rural setting, it still provoked the citizens of Paris. When at the beginning of the French Revolution, in 1789, the aversion to royalty reached its climax, the menagerie became one of the targets of the revolutionaries as they thought it was offensive to feeding animals large amounts of precious food just to look at them. The crowd freed the animals, except for the exotic ones. The animals could not longer be cared for in Versailles. So, when the local Jacobins planned to substitute the menagerie’s useless beasts with a breeding ground that would benefit agriculture, transport and the army, the remaining animals were moved to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris in 1792. Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, steward of the Jardin des Plantes, wished to exhibit the animals as a living part of what was to become the national natural-history museum. At first it was unclear whether the animals could be kept or not, because neither adequate housing, nor human and financial resources were available to accommodate the animals. Nevertheless on 10 June 1793, the Jardin des Plantes including the menagerie as zoological facilities, was officially appointed the national Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle by the ‘Convention nationale’. The establishment of the ‘Ménagerie’ was endorsed on 16 May 1794 by the ‘Comité de Salut public’, which makes it the second oldest zoo according modern zoological tradition, the oldest being Schönbrunn Zoo in Vienna. The establishment intended to serve the entire nation rather than a select few. The involvement of the municipality or local government in the development of the zoo is a trait that has not been copied in most of the other European countries where private or royal menageries were modernised. In other countries zoological gardens were established by societies whose capital was derived from donations and membership contributions.
Despite the creation of a Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle the lack of funds remained, which led to the necessity to keep the animal collection in the not-fit-for-purpose stables, old greenhouse, etcetera. The condition were worse than those of a fairground menagerie. This caused high animal mortality, combined with the lack of food due to national shortages. Therefore, it became necessary to start building the collection from scratch.
Thus, an intensive period of animal acquisition began. Besides the usual methods of acquisition, like purchase, gift and scientific expedition, the military victories of the French army permitted the seizure of animals in menageries of Holland, Switzerland and Italy. Famous was the 23-month-journey to Paris and arrival, 23 March 1798, of an elephant pair from the menagerie of ‘Het Loo’, seized by French forces from the Stadtholder of Holland, Willem V. Perhaps even more impressive was the at the Jardin in 1827, a gift from Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, to King Charles X of France. This giraffe, the first ever seen in France, after sailing from Egypt walked all the way from Marseille to Paris. As mentioned the stables and cages were dilapidated, therefore it was urgently needed to build new enclosures. In a period of about 40 years after the difficult times of the Revolution, several construction projects were completed. These included the monkey and bird house, the bear pits, the rotunda (La Rotonde) for large herbivores (elephant and giraffe), the building for ferocious animals (the Fauverie), a new monkey house and a vivarium. Many of them still exist to date, with La Rotonde – commissioned by Napoleon himself — being the menagerie’s oldest building, designed to replicate the cross of the Napoleonic Legion of Honour, now housing giant tortoises. Driving forces behind this major refurbishment were Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, who ran the menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes from 1802 – 1841, and Frédéric Cuvier, the zoologist who became warden of the menagerie in 1803.
In those days, science was the main focus of the menagerie, as it was in London Zoo (opened in 1828). And it was Lord Zuckerman, President of the Zoological Society of London, who said that the scientific phase of the ancient zoo tradition began with establishment of the Jardin des Plantes and the London Zoo. Although entertainment was not a priority, the menagerie attracted lots of visitors and the mere presence of the animal collection was presumed to broaden the knowledge of the public.
As it was argued that there’s little difference between stuffed animals and those imprisoned in cramped pens, the intentions were to develop enclosures that would allow animals to express their natural behaviour. Unfortunately, this was only partial realised for the herbivores. The excellent cave-riddled rock for the felids for instance, designed by Molinos, was judged to be too expensive, unfortunately. In the end, the ferocious animals were inhabited in a rectangular building of neo-Classical style, with about 20 cages in a row. This was supported by scientists, who thought the architectural form underpinned the status of what they were: a collection, like in natural-history cabinets. The animals were on display, literally, on shelves, rather than in habitats as in zoos, nowadays. The cages were bare and small in size, and withheld the animals of any link whatsoever to their natural environment.
The Jardin’s menagerie design was a break with the Baroque tradition. The menagerie was no longer a separate entity surrounded by a garden, but it was distributed over the whole area. By doing so, multiple viewpoints were created, not only for the public but for the animals too. This was the first time that a kind of naturalistic environment was created for animals kept in captivity. The idea was that the garden represented natural landscapes, which made it irregular based on the fragmented naturalistic design. A collage of forms based on human concepts of how a variety of small hills, valleys, lakes, streams, woods and meadows should look like in a confined situation of a garden.
This style was spread throughout Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century, thanks in part to the contemporary prestige of France in Europe. But, while other European menageries profited from the spread of knew knowledge, via for instance photography and increased possibilities to visit other facilities via railways, and adopted innovations, the Jardin des Plantes did not modernise and soon became old-fashioned. As a matter of fact, the London Zoo had a far more significant effect on the development of modern zoo tradition. Despite this, two traits of the Jardin des Plantes remained influential throughout Europe, its landscaped setting and its dedication to the good of the nation, in both its goals and its accessibility to a wider public.
The history of the menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes is a good example of what happened next in the historic evolution of zoological gardens. In 1861, another scientific objective of zoological gardens was introduced: adaptation to a new climate and domestication of exotic species with the aim of identifying new resources to the society at large. So, domesticate the wild animals, and create more robust animals by cross-breeding them with domestic animals, for commercial purpose (e.g. transport, meat and wool). An alternative supply of food would have been welcomed in this period of food shortages. It turned out that the Jardin des Plantes was not suitable for this goal. Therefore, a new specialised centre was set up by the Société d’Acclimatation just outside Paris: Jardin d’Acclimatation in a part of the Bois de Boulogne. Cross-breeding leading to sterility of animals, the need of wildlife preservation that emerged in the first part of the twentieth century, and the better yield of indigenous livestock, finally marked the failure of this scientific ambition.
A major setback was experienced due to the Franco-Prussian war (1870−71). The famine that spread in the city forced the staff to slaughter the edible animals, and the Jardin was bombarded while a temporary hospital had been set up there. To rebuild the animal collection in the aftermath of the war the French received animal consignments from several befriended nations, even from Australia-Melbourne.
The Jardin des Plantes’ menagerie has changed little over the years, and many of the old buildings still exists, though crucial renovations have taken place, of course. At the beginning of the 20th century a hibernation enclosure (1905), a small monkey house (1928), a vivarium (1929), another monkey house (1934) and a reptile house (1932) have been built. A half century passed after this improvement without any further innovations except the restoration of the bear pit and some technical corrections. A new enclosure for diurnal birds of prey was built in 1983. A variety of renovations were carried out in the 1980s. At the beginning of the 21st century the pheasants enclosure from 1881 was renovated. However, as all of the structures are listed buildings, it is almost impossible to create new structures here.
(Sources: Le zoo du prince by B.C. Sliggers and A.A. Wertheim (ed.), 1994; The Zoo story by Catherine de Courcy, 1995; Zarafa by Michael Allin, 1998; Zoo and Aquarium history by Vernon N. Kisling Jr. (ed.), 2001; Zoo, A history of zoological gardens in the west by Eric Baratay and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier, 2002.)