In 1986, Patrick and Thierry Jardin, two enthusiastic brothers fond of nature and wildlife, founded the zoological park CERZA at Lisieux — near Caen in Normandy. This 50-hectare park is devoted to the reproduction and the welfare of endangered species, with more than 500 animals living in spacious and areas that mimic their natural environment, converted especially for them. Since the opening, Cerza’ s reputation kept growing — not only with the public, but also with professionals from the world of nature conservation and wildlife protection.
Proud of this success, the Jardin brothers wanted to carry on in that way and so in 1998 they created the first European park dedicated to feline species at Auneau (near Chartres in the Eure-et-Loir department). In this park, visitors discovered many feline species that were seldom on display in zoos, such as margay, fishing cat, clouded leopard and manul or Pallas’ cat, alongside the more well-known tigers and lions. During the eight years at Auneau more than 100,000 visitors per year were welcomed in the park, and 80 cubs were born and raised.
Despite this success, director Patrick Jardin and his staff decided to move their cats because at Auneau there was a lack of space (only 8 ha) and possibilities to extend the work on cat conservation and to reach the envisaged goals. So since 1 September 2006, the cats now live in the Seine-et-Marne department at the beautiful 71-hectare woodland estate of “La Fortelle”. Le Parc des Felins opened its gate to the public on 14 October 2006.
As of spring 2014 a brand new asset has been added to the Zoo, the Trans’Félins. This train offers a visit to the park which brings the visitor closer to the animals.
The Zoo’s success in breeding feline species in large enclosures with a natural environment shows in its breeding track record, with registered first births in France of fishing cat, rusty-spotted cat, Asian golden cat, margay, ocelot, jaguarundi and bobcat.
(Source: Le Parc des Félins guidebook; website Le Parc des Félins)
At Nesles, enclosures are designed to respect as much as possible the well-being and the needs of the animals. Therefore, the pleasure of the visitor is not the primary aim when design is considered. This is similar to the mission of the zoos belonging to the Aspinall Foundation in Kent, UK. They also favour the animals above the visitors, so if bar-less is no good for the animals then there will be no bar-less enclosure. The same counts for landscape immersion.
The huge natural enclosures have been designed to ensure the animals’ welfare and encourage natural behaviour. The natural environment, such as forest and heath, provide the animals with all the elements they need in daily life. As a consequence it is not unlikely you will experience ‘empty’ enclosures, because the animals have retreated to a secluded part of the exhibit. On the other hand it could well be that you witness behaviour that will make your visit unforgettable, such as courtship display, mating or nursing. Zoo management therefore advises to return to enclosures you already have seen, because the animal you missed the first time could be visible the second time or display some other behaviour than sleeping — every cats favourite pastime. To further facilitate you in discovering the species that occupy the large enclosures binoculars can be rented at the Zoo gift shop.
At the Parc des Félins over 30 different species and subspecies of the felid family can be found with in total over 140 individuals, all born in captivity. Furthermore, about 40 lemurs from 5 lemur species are kept on ‘L’île des lémuriens’.
The park’s animal collection are grouped according 5 geographical regions — Asia, America, Africa, Europe and Madagascar, with the latter only containing lemur species and no carnivores whatsoever. Each region can only be visited following its specific geographical circuit. So, the visitor can never get confused about which species can be found on which continent, a great educational feature.
When you visit the park you should realise that catering and toilet facilities are only to be found close to the entrance. And when you are early your morning coffee will come out of a machine. Taking this into account I scheduled my geographical circuits in two stages, with a lunch break in between.
After the entrance the first enclosure you come across is the one with cheetahs. It is the only enclosure that is not part of a geographical circuit unless you reckon this the start of the African tour. The 1,8 hectare savannah-like enclosure comprises three cheetahs, the males separated from the female almost throughout the year to enhance the possibility for the female to come in heat when joined with the males. For enrichment purposes they alternate the cheetahs in the outdoor exhibit. Nevertheless, their breeding results are still moderate with only one female cub born since 2006. But it is a well-known fact that cheetahs do not breed easily. The enclosure is elongated to allow the cheetahs to do some running, and contains a few hills to provide them a look-out, a feature cheetahs like. Furthermore, there are a few trees to provide shade and tall grass for the cats to hide.
To stress the fact that in this zoo it is all about the animals and their welfare, a sign to remind the public that they have to obey certain rules when entering this magnificent place is positioned right after the entrance — don’t cross the safety fence, run, shout, excite the animals or do something else that can impair their welfare.
The information panels in the Zoo are really great. The text is not oversimplified or childlike, but dedicated to give good information about the species, breeding results, zoos where the individuals came from or were sent to, and the design of the enclosure according to the habitat demands of the specific cat.
Most of the enclosures in the park appear to be fenced off parts of the original forest. This allows most of the tree climbing cat species to show their behaviour in a natural environment. Sometimes artificial high level observation posts and shelters are installed, though they haven’t gone through the trouble to use a lot of artificial design to create a fake natural native habitat for all the different species. But in general all the big cat enclosures have a natural appearance, except for the fences of course.
Following the footpath along the cheetah enclosure brings you to the 1,2 ha exhibit with Angola lions (Panthera leo bleyenberghi), the official start of the Africa circuit. These lion subspecies are kept in the park since 2006, and had their first cubs in 2007. Although the lazy lions have ample opportunity to hide from the public they lie very close to the fence during my visit, and in a very relaxed position as well. Though some African lions have been discovered to reside permanently in southwestern Ethiopian rainforests (1), normally African lions and cheetahs live in open areas — savannahs, unlike all other feline species. Therefore, the meadows in the park have been chosen as the right area for adjacent enclosures for these species. As they can see each other it stimulates vigilant behaviour between the animal groups. This includes the East African lions (Panthera leo) and Kruger lions or white lions (P.l. krugeri) that are housed in similar large enclosures as the Angola lions.
The serval are kept in a wire mesh cage, which looks a bit pathetic compared to the huge lion enclosures. Nevertheless it equals easily the serval exhibits I’ve seen in other zoos. The cats are quite exposed in this large cage, although trees and logs provide some shelter from curious visitors. The other small cats in the Africa section have enclosures that consists of wire mesh fences and roofs with a wooden beam frame. All contain vegetation and climbing enrichment, but do not particularly stand out. Except the sand cat enclosure, which is not only new, but also different and impressive. I would call it a sand cat ‘hotel’, with enclosures that resemble the desert and with movable roof-panels that can be closed to protect the animals from the rough northern French climate when necessary. The inside is very bright due to the transparent walls and roofs, like a greenhouse. The indoor facilities, as the centre of the enclosures, can be divided into six different ones, all with access to related outdoor exhibits around it. The different pairs of sand cats have their own ‘house with garden’ this way. You might say it is obvious that the Parc des Félins is the coordinator of the sand cat (Felis margarita harrisoni) EEP. It’s very complicated to breed sand cats in captivity and the Parc des Félins is one of the few zoological parks in Europe to breed them on a regular basis, with three sand cat litters since 2006.
An outlier in the Africa section is the Persian leopard (Panthera pardus saxicolor), because this subspecies should be grouped in the Asia section of course. This is obviously a well-known fact to the Zoo’s management, and it is even mentioned on the Zoo’s website where they tease the visitor with this question: “Have you noticed that this subspecies doesn’t belong on the African circuit?” Nevertheless, no explanation is given for the aberration. But even in the wrong geographical section the leopard couple has produced offspring, 3 cubs on 12 May 2012.
Calling two interconnected islands the Madagascar region is a bit presumptuous when you only have 5 lemur species on display (ring-tailed, crowned, black, red ruffed, and black and white ruffed lemurs). And why lemurs and not the fossa or other Madagascar carnivores? Carnivores would fit in better with the Zoo’s mission and main attraction, the feline species, I would say. But lemurs are attractive, entertaining and cuddly, which might explain the choice to have them on display and available for close encounters. The lemur islands are walk-through exhibits where the lemurs may freely roam around. You enter via a pedestrian bridge and are supposed to stay on the islands’ walkway and obey several other rules which are presented in a not to miss clear message. Over 40 lemurs have 1 hectare with trees, shrubs and meadow at their disposal, and interact with the public during feeding time, which is quite a spectacle.
Feline species from both the American continents can be found in this circuit. For several of the species kept here the Parc des Félins was the first French zoo to breed them; margay, ocelots, jaguarundi and bobcat. And they still are successful breeding them, which shows at the Mexican or Yucatan margay (Leopardus wiedii yucatanicus) enclosure where mum is enjoying a nice afternoon nap together with her cub, born May this year (video). The father is kept separate from them.
One very interesting exhibit is the ocelot enclosure which is much higher than all the others. With an undulating ground floor, wooden beams for climbing even up to the rooftop, ferns and other vegetation, the ocelots are provided their own private jungle to express their natural behaviour.
Personally, I think the Asian circuit is the most interesting one. Not the least because of the brand new white tiger enclosure of 3 ha, with its large observation deck. I had never seen such a large tiger enclosure before (video), and was really baffled that such a grand enclosure was wasted on white tigers. Bengal tigers, of which the white tiger is a genetically aberrant version, have a habitat range that is very diverse, including grassland, riverine and moist semi-deciduous forest as available here in Nesles. Although white and better visible, the resident tigers are able to hide from the inquisitive public mainly because of the vast size of the enclosure.
Apart from these white tigers there are Sumatran tigers, Amur tigers and Malayan tigers on display. All of the enclosures are equally large and allow the animals to stay out of sight while taking their nap. So, the suggestion in the guidebook to take your time and return to the exhibits once or twice during your tour around the Zoo should be taken seriously.
One of the smallest wild felids in the world, the rusty-spotted cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus), was first bred in France by the Parc des Félins. They have 3 specimens on display at the time of visit, all of which come from Rotterdam Zoo. Another first breeding result in France by this Zoo is with the Asian golden cat (Pardofelis temminckii). For me it was the first time I laid eyes on this beautiful cat. Among the three subspecies described in the wild, the Parc des Félins is the only European institution to keep and regularly breed two of them (Pardofelis temminckii tristis and P.t. Temminckii). Breeding is difficult because aggression between male and female is frequent, what makes separation important. So, they only should be brought together for a short as possible period, most likely late in the evening which is the preferred time for mating.
The leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) is another small cat that you don’t see often in European zoos. In total there are 20 individuals in captivity in Europe, of which four are kept at the Parc des Félins. Three of the Nesles specimens have been seized by customs, being part of illegal trade.
Most enclosures are rather similar regarding the enrichment that is provided, albeit for each species small specific adjustments are made to meet its natural needs. Unfortunately, and disappointingly, the fishing cat enclosure lacked a pond at time of visit. And an enclosure that absolutely doesn’t resemble the animal’s native habitat is the exhibit for the clouded leopard. Much to my surprise and regret it is relatively small and contain hardly any vegetation, which is a shame for an arboreal cat such as the clouded leopard. The Pallas’ cat however, has got a bare enclosure at its disposal that resembles the Himalayan native habitat of this cat. There are three adjacent enclosures, of which one is really bare with only stones that looks like a mountainous area.
Three Asian lions have arrived in April 2012 and they occupy an enormous enclosure in the forest with a pond in one corner of the exhibit.
To complete my tour I visited the two cat species from Europe they keep in Nesles, the European wildcat and the northern lynx (Lynx lynx lynx). It is assumed that about 200 – 250 lynx still live in the wild in France, in the Vosges, the Jura and the Alps. The two European cat species are housed just across the footpath from the inevitable petting farm, in this case with only goats.
In addition to all the positive things said about Nesles Zoo I would like to mention the guidebook as a great asset to the experience while touring the grounds. It contains brief descriptions of all known feline species in the world, to support cat identification in the wild, and in zoos of course. It supplements other tools the Zoo offers for educational purposes — the excellent information panels, guided school visits and videos about the Park and its conservation work.
1 — African lions discovered as permanent residents of rainforests
Huge white tiger exhibit at the Parc des Felins, Nesles, France
The only bad thing about this 3 ha exhibit is that it contains white tigers! Why did they decide to keep these genetically aberrant tigers, which only appear in nature by pure accident and have been bred in zoos only to attract visitors?
Yucatan margay mum and cub at the Parc des Félins, Nesles, France
This margay mum enjoys a relaxed afternoon nap while the cub, born May 2012, is getting ready for some action.
The lemurs at the Parc des Félins
(Source: parcdesfelins YouTube channel)
Hunting behaviour remains
At the Parc des Félins a large number of natural prey species is captured by the cats in their enclosures. The leopards, lynx, servals and other cats succeed in catching each year numerous prey that adventure into their enclosures, such as hares, ducks, snakes, moles and amphibians.
The Zoo is compiling all this information on prey killed by the captive cats in their enclosures for a global study. A few results and photos of cats after a successful hunt can be found here.
(Source: website Le Parc des Félins)
The white tigers in the Parc des Félins
White Bengal tigers are genetically aberrant due to a mutation in a specific gene that causes the elimination of pheomelanin expression. This is a recessive trait, meaning that it is only seen in individuals that are homozygous for this mutation. Inbreeding promotes recessive traits and has been used as a strategy to produce white tigers in captivity.
A Bengal tiger with a colour aberration in its coat (white) and eyes (blue) is not well equipped for hunting in nature, because it lacks camouflage. Therefore it is merely impossible to sustain in the wild. Almost all white tigers are descendants from a lineage of the white tiger found in the jungle of Central India by the Maharadja of Rewa in 1951. As said above it requires severe inbreeding to produce and sustain the mutation of a white coat in tigers. This also causes a number of other defects in these big cats, such as cross-eyed, club feet, cleft palates, spinal deformities and defective organs.
Therefore, in June 2011 the board of directors for the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) approved a White Paper on breeding of white tigers, white lions or king cheetahs by their member zoos. The paper stated, “Breeding practices that increase the physical expression of single rare alleles (i.e., rare genetic traits) through intentional inbreeding, for example intentional breeding to achieve rare colour-morphs such as white tigers, deer, and alligators, has been clearly linked with various abnormal, debilitating, and, at times, lethal, external and internal conditions and characteristics.” AZA-accredited institutions are advised not to engage in intentional inbreeding practices for the purpose of producing anomalous phenotypes from the perspectives of welfare, education, population management, and conservation.
The position of the Parc des Félins is rather confusing, because on its website the following statement can be found:
“This tiger with its ‘abnormal’ coat is always a great success with the visitors and yet a lot of nonsense has been said about it! Even if you like this tiger, do spend some time with the other animals which are genuinely endangered because there is no real interest in protecting white tigers as they don’t exist in the wild: Man has simply been maintaining a genetic anomaly for the last 60 years!”
and the information panel at the enclosure reads:
“.…these animals are raised within our park only for the pleasure of eyes.”
So, what do they want to achieve with having white tigers in their park?
(Source: Wikipedia; website Le Parc des Félins; information panel Le Parc des Félins; website Big Cat Rescue; website Association of Zoos & Aquariums).
Directions to Parc des Félins at Nesles
The Parc is located 52 km to the southeast from Paris and 25 km from Disneyland. Since 2009, the Parc des Félins can be reached by public transport thanks to the Conseil Général de Seine-et-Marne and the transport company Darche-Gros via the Seine-et-Marne Express network.
by train and bus /taxi
Basically your first leg of the journey is by train, after which the second leg is either by bus or by taxi.
The train options are:
The SNCF Transilien RER D in the direction of Melun and get off at Melun (route planner); or
The SNCF Transilien P (mission code XIBU: direction Provins) at Gare de l’Est, get off at Verneuil l’Etang (route planner); or
The SNCF Transilien P (mission code CITU: direction Coulommiers) at Gare de l’Est, get off at Coulommiers (route planner); or
The SNCF Transilien RER E in the direction of Tournan and get off at Tournan (route planner); or
The SNCF Transilien P CITU at Gare de l’Est in the direction of Coulommiers and instead of getting off at Coulommiers alight at at Tournan (route planner)
The train journey takes 50 minutes from Paris (Haussmann St-Lazare) or 30 minutes from Gare de l’Est (Paris-Est)
Followed by bus when you arrived at either Melun, Coulommiers or Verneuil l’Etang:
Take the line Seine-et-Marne Express n°1 (Rebais — Coulommiers — Melun), make sure you take the bus in the right direction (more information here); ask the driver when in doubt
Get off at ‘Lumigny — Parc des Félins’
Follow the signs to the park entrance (about 300 m)
Or followed by taxi when you arrived at Tournan:
From Tournan to Parc des Félins at Nesles is 17 km, which will take 15 minutes by taxi (TAXI NOËL +33 (0)18.104.22.168.49)
There are several campsites within a 10 km distance from the zoo. So, cycling is a good option, especially because this a rather flat area of France. Bring your own bicycle, because the towns in the area are not packed with bike rental shops, though you might get lucky at one of the campsites.
From PARIS, VERSAILLES, EVRY and Western France
The best options are
Take the A4 motorway towards Nancy
Leave at Junction 13 and follow directions for Provins (D231)
The park is signposted from the 3rd roundabout (obelisk)
Take the Francilienne (N104)
Take the N4 towards Nancy
Exit at D402 — Coulommiers
Follow signposts to the park
From NANCY, PROVINS, TROYES and Eastern France
Itinerary n°1 (Nancy, etc)
Take the A4 motorway towards Paris
Leave at Junction 15 and follow directions for Provins
The park is signposted from the 1st roundabout (obelisk)
Take the N4 towards Paris
Exit at D402 — Coulommiers
Follow signposts to the park
From MELUN or MEAUX
From MELUN, take the N36 (towards Meaux)
From MEAUX, take the N36 (towards Melun)
Take the N4 towards Nancy
Exit at D402 — Coulommiers
Follow signposts to the park
When using SatNav please set these coordinates: Latitude 48°42’43.4″; Longitude : 2°57’31.3″
Download the zoo map here.