Imagine coming face to face with this creature? I was calmly munching on my baguette when I turned round and caught sight of this monster lurking in the bushes. Well, I was so shocked I almost dropped my delicious snack. When you’re in France for a day trip you should be prepared for almost anything. But this? Welcome to the eerie, slightly unnerving and utterly splendid cardboard zoo of Lille.
Le Parc Zoologique de Lille is a very impressive municipal zoo and easily reached by a 15 minute walk from the city’s main square. It does have some real animals too; in fact I’ve paid to enter zoos that are considerably smaller. The red pandas at the entrance are a crowd pleaser, and the American and African sections provide a selection of alpacas, llamas, rhino, zebras and gazelle-shaped creatures (not all mixed together obviously).
But it’s the cardboard animals that caught our imagination. They are scattered around the park, sometimes occupying enclosures where you’d normally expect a living and breathing animal to be pacing around. It’s startlingly easy to follow the logic of the zoo owners. They sat down when designing a zoo and decided what animals they wanted. Maybe they even let a bunch of kids draw up the list. And then they set about acquiring those animals. Any that they couldn’t get their hands on (the polar bears must have been out of stock), they merely created a cut out and hoped no-one would notice. A brilliant plan.
Look at the picture above for example. The lynx looks real enough, but if you look closely you’ll see the wooden sticks that betray him as a fake. And once you know about this one, you start to wonder about the zebra behind it (it’s real I can assure you).
Wandering around the zoo, stopping to admire the polar bears peeling in the midday sun and looking yellow with age, it did make me think: maybe this is a glimpse of the future? How many of these species will be around in 50 years? Perhaps the zoo of the future will only have cardboard cut-outs to show the curious children what tigers or sharks used to look like? Maybe they will add in CGI and sound effects to create a more ‘real’ feel to a zoo without animals? Although feeding time at the aquarium is going to be a tough one to pull off using a wooden dolphin.
Or perhaps it is the keeping of animals in captivity that will become a thing of the past as the next generation rejects such habits in favour of virtual interactions with the world’s most exotic species. Why stare at a crocodile on the other side of a fence in the zoo when you can fight one in mortal combat using just a set of goggles? If it turns out to be the future, the Lille zoo may just be remembered as a trail-blazer of its time. Cardboard koalas may yet be here to stay.