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Paris prepares for major zoo renovation, to be finished in 2014 (no elephants included)

February 25, 2010 | 11:53 am

Paris zoo

PARIS — For a zoo, it's a quiet and lonely place. Among the few remaining residents of Paris' main animal park are the giraffes -- whose long necks make travel inconvenient -- and a hippo who was permitted to stay put after she threw a temper tantrum in a shipping crate.

Closed since 2008, and its animals mostly shipped abroad, the aging zoo in Paris' Vincennes woods has been awaiting a badly needed renovation. On Wednesday, officials finally announced a $181-million overhaul through a public-private partnership, which they hope will create a zoo befitting one of the world's most beautiful cities.

The animal park, officially called the Zoological Park of Paris, will reopen in 2014. In the meantime, "the giraffes will oversee the construction site," said Bertrand-Pierre Galey, who runs France's National Museum of Natural History, which encompasses the zoo.

The zoo has not had major work done since it opened in 1934, and its crumbling displays -- including faux cliffs and rocks made out of concrete -- eventually became a safety hazard.

"The rocks were deteriorating, and it was getting dangerous for the personnel, the public and the animals," Genevieve Beraud-Bridenne, director of the museum's department of botanic gardens and zoos, told the Associated Press.

The new design is sleek and aims to re-create animals' natural ecosystems as closely as possible.

A glass-domed greenhouse will replicate an Amazonian rain forest. White rhinos and West African lions will roam on a savanna covered with dry shrub. Another zone will re-create the rocky terrain of Patagonia, with Humboldt penguins. Ten zones are planned in total.

The zoo will showcase many threatened species, such as several types of lemurs native to Madagascar, among the 1,000-plus animals on display. The priority is the animals' health and happiness: There will be no elephants because there isn't enough space for them.

An emphasis will be put on education and research, and a longer-term goal is to reintroduce some endangered species into the wild.

French Ecology Minister Chantal Jouanno said officials discussed at length whether zoos still have a role in the 21st century or whether their time has come and gone. But they decided that zoos are now scientific research centers and help explain issues like biodiversity to the general public.

"This zoo project is a strong denial of the notion that zoos are out of date," she said.

Once the museum reopens, tickets will cost an average price of $18.50. The overhaul is to be funded through a public-private partnership signed Wednesday.

The natural history museum will share the financial burden with a consortium called Chrysalis, specially set up for the project, that includes building group Bouygues Construction. Private investment in such projects was once a rarity in France, though it's becoming more common.

Since the zoo shut down in 2008, most of its animals have been sent to animal parks abroad. The giraffes, a tight-knit group, stayed behind -- they travel best when they're young and smaller and easier to transport, the zoo said.

Some animals were sent to Algeria in June, with help from the North African country's army. French motorcycle police accompanied the convoy to the airport, cutting off traffic on Paris' ring road to ensure their safe passage.

A hippo named Pelagie was supposed to be with them. But though she had practiced stepping into her shipping crate for weeks, she grew frightened once inside and banged the box up. The zoo is still looking for a home for her and her partner, Rodolphe, who stayed behind with her.

-- Associated Press

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Photo: A computer-generated image provided by France's National Museum of Natural History shows one of the future zones of the Zoological Park of Paris. Credit: MNHM / Associated Press

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