Nénette – Paris zoo’s oldest Madame

Posted on February 14, 2011


She’s an ageing red-head, who’s had three “husbands” and four kids, but Nénette’s life is far from fulfilled. Unlike most Parisian women her age, she is not a lady of leisure, she is in fact a prisoner in her own home.

The 40-year orangutan is the subject of the latest documentary by Nicolas Philibert, famed for his excellent film about a rural school in France, Être et Avoir (2002). Nénette is the oldest inhabitant at the oldest zoo in the world,  Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Born in Borneo in Southeast Asia in 1959, she was taken to the French capital in 1972 where she’s remained.

Nénette, part celebrity, part prisoner

The film, now showing in UK cinemas, was made through the protective glass of Nénette’s enclosure. Apart from people’s voices, the camera rarely wanders away from the gaze of the apes. The living conditions at the zoo are far from ideal for Nénette and her companions.

Nénette, a life behind glass

As one voice in the doco says: “A victim of her rarity. If there were more of her around, she’d probably be in her jungle.”

Each year over half a million people pass Nénette’s enclosure, some say she is part prisoner, part celebrity.

Most scientists recognise two species of orangutan – Pongo pygameus found on the island of Borneo, and Pongo abelii on the island of Sumatra. They are part of the great ape family and are the largest arboreal animals in the world, usually spending over 95 per cent of their time in the trees. These magnificent creatures are also among the most sexually dimorphic of primates with males much larger than females.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified the Bornean orangutan as endangered and the Sumatran orangutan as critically endangered. Their populations are threatened like most primates in the wild, due to habitat loss and poaching. Both species are in severe decline and may soon be extinct as biologically viable populations in the wild.

Nénette will never return to the wild, it’s too late for her. But there are others who could end up just like her, if the forests in Southeast Asia continue to disappear. The Orangutan Appeal UK is holding a singing fundraiser on March 4th in London, called Charioke.

If you need encouraging, have a look at the trailer for Nénette.