Paris zoo workers strike over rat infestation and safety of animals

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France's premier zoo closed yesterday after staff went on strike, claiming that the 70-year-old park is falling apart and swarming with rats.

France's premier zoo closed yesterday after staff went on strike, claiming that the 70-year-old park is falling apart and swarming with rats.

The Paris zoological gardens in the Bois de Vincennes was partially closed by management for safety reasons in July. Many of the most popular animals - including lions, tigers and bears - have already been moved to other zoos and safari parks for their own safety.

The 130 employees say that the rest of the zoo, once regarded as the most imaginative and advanced in the world, remains dangerous for visitors, animals and zoo-keepers. They have gone on strike until the government, which runs the park, announces an investment programme to ensure its future.

The 45-acre zoo opened briefly, despite the strike, yesterday morning but closed after a couple of hours and is likely to remain shut indefinitely.

The strikers picketed the entrance carrying placards, one of which read: "For five euros, come and visit our ruins and our empty enclosures."

When the Vincennes animal park opened in 1934, it was hailed as a startling and humane new concept in cage-free zoo design. Most of the animals were kept behind walls and moats in large enclosures formed of fake, hollow rocks, made from concrete spread over iron-work. Seventy years later, the fake rocks are falling apart. The staff say the exotic animals kept in the zoo have been joined by countless rats, which threaten to spread disease.

The National Museum of Natural History, which runs the zoo on behalf of the education and research ministry, has promised to announce a large investment programme, including private financing, next month. Several similar re-building plans have been pledged, amid great fanfare, in recent years and come to nothing.

Staff say that the zoo has been "disinherited". They say that the education ministry, pressed for funds to finance schools and research, has squeezed the zoo's budget for decades. The fake rocks, for which the zoo was once famous, have proved short-lived and costly to replace or maintain.

The "grand rocher", a tall pinnacle of fake rock at the centre of the zoo, and partly used as habitat for monkeys, was closed for safety reasons in 1982 and re-opened 15 years later after €7.6m of repairs. None of the other rocks have been rebuilt since the park opened. For several weeks, zoo workers have been asking visitors to sign a petition calling for urgent action to prevent the complete closure of the park. Almost 12,000 people have signed.

"There are more and more collapses of false rocks ... Rats, carriers of disease, swarm through every part of the park day and night," the staff said in a communiqué. Animal keepers are performing essential tasks, such as feeding the animals and cleaning their enclosures. Otherwise, all work in the park has ceased.

Lions, tigers, bears and polar bears were removed from the zoo in July and dispersed to other zoos and animal parks in rural France, after parts of the park were pronounced unsafe. Elephants and monkeys are also due to be sent elsewhere in the near future. Staff fear that this is the beginning of a gradual run-down of Vincennes, which is the only large zoo in greater Paris.

Without such popular animals, the staff say, visits to the zoo - which once ran at 700,000 a year - will decline and the parks' finances will collapse. Although Vincennes remains humane in its design, as urban zoos go, animal rights activists have also been campaigning for improved accommodation for its bears and big cats, which are kept in old-fashioned pits.