Gorillas, hippos… In Saint-Martin-la-Plaine, Pierre Thivillon’s 1000 animals celebrate 50 years of happiness

Pierre Thivillon and his wife Eliane started from scratch to create the Zoological Park of Saint-Martin-la-Plaine on the Loire. 50 years later, a retrospective of the daily life of a place that is a reference, namely, in terms of gorillas. A unique place to safeguard and protect many species. Anecdotes on the set of “You are great” in France 3

It is a huge Noah’s Ark, with its thousand animals, which will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary on July 23, 2022. The Saint-Martin-la-Plaine zoological space, located on the Loire, between Saint-Etienne and Lyon, was created by Pierre Thivillon and his wife Eliane.

You know… There are words that haunt me. I was born in Saint-Martin-en-Haut, on the Rhône… I am married to a girl Martin and I live in Saint-Martin-la-Plaine “, laughs our interlocutor from the beginning, when we talk about his career. ” My father worked in the factory and had a few hectares of land, to make some wheat, potatoes, life, and that was it… »

Don’t sell them, don’t eat them

There were indeed some animals in these lands, but that didn’t mark Pierre. ” I left to work in the garden, then I started to drive trucks… At 22, I set myself up by myself creating, with my wife, a flower shop and its production. »

Once established in horticulture, he quickly collected animals. ” Maybe they’re the ones who pushed me to the other side “, he admits.” They brought me animals that had to be taken in because people didn’t know what to do with them. And very quickly, the idea of ​​the zoo came to me. I wanted to take care of the animals, but it seemed inconceivable to raise them for trade. » He insists: “Don’t sell them, don’t eat them. Limit the field of action.”

For many years this type of trade was common. ” There was a sort of trade-off between the parks. It was unpleasant. This meant that someone with a bad build but with money could have an animal. But not the one with a good setup but no dime… It was kind of dumb and I worked on it to stop this trade. »

The park therefore opened on July 23, half a century ago. ” We had a few monkeys, only one feline which was a cougar. We started with quite common animals, and very few. I have a very bad memory of it, because the water has run under the bridge since… »

It was while arguing with the postman that I learned, at that time, that the future land of his park was for sale. ” This place was called Champs Beauvais at the time. It was three hectares, and we went to see them and rented them. “His wife shares his passion for animals” It’s better! he laughs.

The opening of the park, in 1972, happened naturally. ” We decided in 1971 to create this park, and I remember that we started work on November 2nd. With my brother we went there, with a shovel and a pick, and what to cut bushes. And we clean for three weeks “, he says.

We had to hurry. The opening was scheduled for July. ” We had no financial means. At that time, we could still start things with little means. That changed today. »

Birds of prey, lions or wolves arrive gradually. There too, easily, or almost. ” Meetings with colleagues allowed us to get some insights. And then we were also a little oblivious. For example, our first lions came from the Abrets Zoo in Isère. My colleague told me they were small and nice. We went to pick them up with Eliane with a dispatch rider reinforced with plywood behind the seats “, he says. “ But these lions weighed 70 kilos! After a few kilometers, one of them put his paws on the railing behind us and looked down the road. Until he decided to jump between my wife and I… We ended up in the landfill !” he laughs.

The incredible anecdote does not stop there. “ Finally, Eliane took the wheel, and I sat on the straw, back there, with the lions. It was the first time I approached. They were licking my face. My wife drove to Saint-Martin… without a driver’s license!“, he finishes.

Two years later, the gorilla Alexis arrives. ” A person wrote to us to entrust us. One night, we see this baby gorilla land in a lady’s arms. She explains leaving him for a few days on vacation. Finally, he’s going to be there longer than expected. ” When his owners came back after a month to get him back, we refused! »

Souvenir: Pierre Thivillon and Laurent Guillaume facing a gorilla (excerpt from Chronique d’en haut)



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Another gorilla, named Platon, landed in the park in 1975, aged 5. It will become the site’s emblem until its disappearance in 2008. The park has become a reference for this species, and a space dedicated to them has been created on site. ” It’s such an extraordinary animal that you can’t help but fall in love with it. His closeness to the man is unsettling… unfortunately for him he smiled.

The animal remains… very imposing. “ You know, we see visitors pass behind glass. And people feel so safe. But as soon as you step behind a gate, you feel the truly physical, barrier-free presence. And people are often very impressed by it. we are used to it “, explains Peter.

Digit even lived 18 years in our bed

In 1999, a gorilla mother refused to feed her newborn baby. Instead of letting him die, Pierre decides to adopt him. Digito is 22 years old today. ” We are not necessarily good parents to every species on Earth. By creating it artificially, an animal is deprived of a social life with its companions. Which makes it very difficult to make him a breeder. Digit preferred our presence to the evil she was introduced to, which she rejected. So, well… She’s with us. We always live in the same room at night…»

We currently have a 17-month-old girl, and she is the 10th gorilla born in Saint-Martin.

Digit actually lives by day with her peers and meets her “foster parents” at night. An extraordinary relationship, which imposed itself. ” She lived with a man for a while, but she couldn’t take it. He rolls mechanics every now and then… and Digit preferred to go back to the mother who protects her. And then, we spoiled her very much. She still lived 18 years in our bed “, he adds.

In Saint-Martin-la-Plaine, the first captive birth took place in 1995. Many others followed: “ We currently have a 17 month old girl, and she is 10º gorilla born in Saint-Martin “. Today, there are 11 gorillas in the park.” In France, we are only five zoos that have females. »

Practices have changed. European breeding plans were implemented. ” There is, for example, a Scientific Committee that manages a population like that of gorillas. We are obliged to inform you of our births and our deaths. And business is settled. Animals are not sold to someone who will do whatever they want with them. »

The role of parks has evolved to allow animals to be saved, reproduce and, why not, return to freedom. ” Of course, we all want that. But when you look at the state of nature… How it’s being destroyed, in the world… The human population has doubled in a few decades, and there’s less and less space “, rectifies Pierre Thivillon. ” It’s really very complicated. People are responsible for protection. We try to keep the animals. And if we can put some back in nature, we’re delighted. »




video length: 52 sec

Pierre Thivillon answers the “very poor” question



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The Saint-Martin-la-Plaine zoological park now has a thousand different animals and a hundred species. It also hosts the Tongan Land of Welcome Foundation. Takes in confiscated or abandoned animals. She has collected just over 500 animals since the association’s inception. ” The authorities called me to warn me that an animal in danger would be seized or detained by people with no skill and asked if I could take it. Which was impossible. So we refused for many years, like all zoos. »

And then one day…” I was a little tricked. The Drôme authorities entrusted us with a hippopotamus – with its trailer – for three weeks. In the end, Tonga stayed three months. However, with the Brigitte Bardot Foundation, we managed to find a solution for him and he left to live in Africa. » It was upon discovering the images of Tonga, in great spaces of Africa, that Pierre finally decided to create the association.

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