Located in Rhodes in the Moselle, halfway between Nancy and Strasbourg, it is different to many other zoos; the animals are in huge enclosures rather than small cages, and you can stay overnight in a variety of log cabins, yurts, tree houses, or even a half-underground hide.
Rather than trying to cram two of each species into the zoo, at Sainte-Croix they prefer to keep a smaller number of species in larger groups. They specialise in education and European wildlife and give people the opportunity to join zookeepers for a day.
Their wolves are a huge attraction and a wolfcub was born at the zoo in April. It also keeps bears, lynx and wolverines. In total they have more than 100 species of animals, living in semi-liberty, including birds of prey and a very popular petting farm.
The park was founded in 1980 by Gérald and Liliane Singer, who had farmed the land since they bought it in 1967. It was a step in the dark as neither of them had any training or background in zoology, they just had a passion for wildlife, the environment and education.
When they retired, their sons, Laurent and Pierre, took over the park, which since its foundation, has welcomed three million visitors. It is very involved with conservation, and research into how carnivores such as wolves and bears can live free but still in harmony with human beings.
One of the park’s most popular attractions is the barefoot walk, designed to let people experience the different textures and sensations of walking on sand, bark, earth, etc. Another popular offer is going “backstage” and becoming a zoo keeper for a day.
The park’s spokesman Clément Leroux said the idea was to give people a real experience, and allow them to get in contact with nature.
“The point of the barefoot walk is that many city children never go outside without shoes on. They don’t know what it’s like to feel different textures under their feet.”
Combined with the teaching farm, where children can stroke sheep and goats, it gives them a chance to get physically close to nature, and have some concept of what biodiversity means. “New for this year are plastic cows which the children can milk,” he said. “It’s fun for kids, but also educational, and yes it is real milk that comes out of the cows.”
The philosophy of the park is that the animals are kept-in big spaces, so it is up to the visitors to discover them, by walking from one habitat to another. “We’re halfway between a safari park and a zoo,” says Clément Leroux. “Of course the animals are in captivity, but because they are in such large enclosures, they behave far more naturally than in a “classic” zoo.
“The park was founded on these principles years before they became mainstream. It’s one of the reasons we get 300,000 visitors a year.”
The zoo makes a joke out guaranteeing people will not see giraffes there. There are no other large African animals either: no elephants or big cats.
“We do have some non-European animals like kangaroos, but we principally keep European animals.”
They have four packs of wolves, of different species, and four brown bears which live in the biggest bear habitat in Europe. They are siblings however, so because there is no intention of breeding them, the male is sterilised.
The park aims to come up with as many experiences as possible, like being a zoo-keeper for a day, helping feed the animals, going backstage, and seeing how the park is run. Charging for these extras helps finance the park’s not-for-profit association which is dedicated to the welfare of animals in the wild, particularly wolves and bears.
They do a lot of work in areas of France that have been spontaneously repopulated by wolves which have simply walked over the Italian frontier.
“Farmers have got used to living without wolves so of course they’re not pleased to see them. And in many cases they’ve forgotten how to co-exist with them, so we run education programmes to promote co-existence. We also run programmes to teach people the truth about wolves, because so many people have read exaggerated stories and fables about them. We run similar programmes in the Pyrenees too, aiming to preserve the bear population which has been reintroduced there.”
New for this year are wolverines, which are not well known in France. (There are only three other parks in France which keep wolverines.)
Sainte-Croix has a new pair from Sweden, who are part of a breeding programme. They are also launching a new film called La Nuit du Grand Loup (in French) and have some new grey wolves.
They have 300,000 visitors a year including many from Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, and Holland, and all the signs are in English, French and German.
For more information see www.parcsaintecroix.com