While zoos (and aquariums) have long been favoured excursions for generations of holidaymakers, they are not without controversy.
It’s generally accepted that if a zoo keeps animals safely and humanely to help preserve the species, then that is a good thing and morally acceptable. This does, of course, raise problems of ensuring a varied gene pool for future population growth and the issue of returning animals to the wild.
Suffice to say; a good zoo will balance education, research and welfare while at the same time providing enjoyment and interest to paying customers whose cash will assist in the long-term protection of the animals.
France has some stand-out zoos and aquariums where conservation goes hand in hand with tourism.
La Palmyre Zoo Royan, Charente-Maritime
Founded in 1966 and attracting 700,000 visitors each year, this is an impressive zoo covering over 40 acres of the Coubre pine forest on the Atlantic coast. There are some 1600 animals from 115 species to admire, including Asian elephants, polar bears, orangutans, lemurs, flamingos and zebras.
A number of unique habitats have been developed, reflecting the animals’ natural surroundings and providing for their respective needs. Signposting is very good, and it’s easy to wander around enjoying the different themes to each of the landscapes.
La Palmyre Zoo, like many, has an excellent reputation for its animal conservation work.
La Rochelle Aquarium Charente-Maritime
This is one of Europe’s largest aquariums, with 3 million litres of seawater (half of which is devoted to the shark tanks!), and over 70 aquaria. Home to over 12,000 creatures, it’s set beside the old harbour in a wonderful position in the town and is now the number one attraction of the Charente-Maritime.
On arrival, you descend in a ‘submarine’ and begin your underwater journey. There’s plenty to see, with a large open-ocean tank for sharks and rays (and walk-through tunnel), a jungle zone with piranhas and the daintier but no less fascinating sea horses and swaying jellyfish. Vast panoramic viewing windows allow you to feel really immersed (inevitable pun intended)
Zoo Parc de Beauval Near Blois, Loire Valley
Regarded by many as France’s most beautiful zoo, this is certainly one of the largest. Aside from the usual suspects, there are some unusual creatures: white lions, white tigers, manatees, hippos, and giant pandas (the only ones in France) are all big draws. The African Savannah zone is home to wildebeest, giraffes, rhinos and more.
The Australian House offers a rare chance in Europe to see koalas, as well as red kangaroos and wallabies.
The Big Cats area includes snow leopard, jaguar, lions and pumas, while the Gorilla Complex provides the necessary habitat for a fascinating gorilla family.
Cerza Safari Park Near Le Havre, Normandy
South of La Havre, this safari park enjoys a setting beside a pleasant lake and has two walking trails so you can get to see up close some of the world’s most fascinating animals. The zoo ‘train’ is another means of travel around the park. Along the way, you’ll encounter Indian rhinos, giraffes, tigers, dwarf kangaroos, gazelles and energetic gibbons.
La Fleche Zoo La Fleche, Pays de Loir
Dating from 1946, this is a venerable zoo and home to a variety of animals: lions, tigers, elephants, black panthers, grizzly bears, hippos, polar bears and much more.
It’s well laid out with discrete viewing windows in places, allowing you to get close but without being overly intrusive on the animals. There are underwater windows for otters, penguins and sea lions.
Zoo de Doué Doué-la-Fontaine, near Saumur
Set in an old quarry in the heart of the Loire Valley, this is the only troglodyte zoo in the world, with tunnels and waterfalls adding to the sense of drama as you wander.
Vallée des Singes Romagne, south of Poitiers
Monkeys, apes and gorillas in an open environment
Nausicaa, National Sea Centre Boulogne
More than simply an aquarium, this is a large establishment dedicated to conserving marine life. There's plenty to see, with over 50 aquariums and 36,000 sea creatures.
Reserve Africaine de Sigéan Near Perpignan, Languedoc
A popular reserve with lions, bears, zebras, elephants, alligators and more. A drive-through safari section is always a hit, followed by a walking trail to view different animals.
Mulhouse Zoological Park Mulhouse, Alsace
An interesting zoo; also a noted park and listed by the French Ministry of Culture as one of France's "Remarkable Gardens". Spring brings a wonderful show of some 400 kinds of iris and hundreds of dahlias in summer with trees in fantastical shapes. Bears, lions, and tigers are dramatic residents, as is the red ibis – a startlingly vibrant and completely red bird.
La Cité de la Mer Cherbourg, Normandy
La Cite de la Mer is a unique attraction that you don't want to miss if you're in the area. This is more than just an aquarium, but a maritime museum as well.
There are exhibits on different types of boats, from traditional fishing vessels to the Titanic. The impressive 10m tall aquarium has a wide variety of fish, from sharks to rays.