"If you meet a feline, do not let go of it": the visitor is warned from the outset, before being captivated throughout the course of the exhibition that opens Wednesday until January 2024.

Dozens of wild cats greet him as soon as he enters, lurking in the darkness. These stuffed specimens, most of which come from the collections of the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle (MNHN), represent the full diversity of this mammal family.

"We know between five and ten species of felines but there are actually about forty, some of which are unknown to the general public but also to scientists," says Géraldine Veron, curator of the exhibition.

Like the manul, the serval and many small wild cats such as the reddish cat that weighs only one kilo, the fishing cat that dives to catch fish ... So many species very difficult to observe in the wild - the flat-headed cat was first seen in 1998, in Borneo - and whose abundance is difficult to estimate.

Vincent Cuisset, taxidermist, prepares in his workshop the naturalization of a jaguar, February 15, 2023, for the exhibition on felines at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris © Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP

But one thing is certain: the majority of cat species are threatened, either globally or locally. Hunting, poaching, habitat loss, deforestation... "Their beauty fascinates us but it is also what makes them fragile because for a long time they have been hunted for their coat," adds Géraldine Veron, professor specializing in carnivores at the MNHN.

Outstanding predators, they can also be seen as competitors of man. Such as the lynx, which once inhabited the forests of France before disappearing from the territory in the twentieth century, to be finally reintroduced.

Jafar the Jaguar

The exhibition takes us to their own hunting ground, revealing the talents of these hyper-carnivores, whose hyper-sensitivity is a formidable weapon. Like this ability to see clearly at night thanks to large eye sockets, touch or fine hearing. Not to mention their speed, their athlete's body and the specific attributes that are their claws, vibrissae that form their "whiskers"...

And of course their fearsome fangs and jaws, of which the jaguar has the largest. This big cat populating South America is one of the highlights of the show, presented in a striking scene of predation: the mouth open, bouncing on a peccary (a kind of pig).

A stuffed caracal in the taxidermy workshop of the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle in Paris, before the opening of the exhibition "Félins" on March 22, 2023 © Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP

This jaguar nicknamed Jafar is the most recent specimen. He is from French Guiana, where he was hit by a car in 2022. Before the accident, the animal was known because it had been filmed in its wild life in the middle of the jungle, melting on a caiman.

"He always attacks behind the neck and breaks the skulls," says Vincent Cuisset, the taxidermist who prepared Jafar. He went himself to recover the skin and skeleton of the feline in Cayenne, where the body was kept by an association for the protection of nature.

In his studio in Paris, Vincent Cuisset spent long days of meticulous modeling to be as faithful as possible to Jafar's anatomy and hunting video. It was important not for the skin to dry too quickly, otherwise the slightest mistake was fixed.

"It's a fight with the jaguar," he said, a little stressed a month before the opening of the exhibition. But Jafar finally "let it happen," commented Wednesday the taxidermist, proud of his naturalization.

The poster of the exhibition on the pediment of the Grande galerie de l'évolution in Paris © Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP

In pre-Columbian civilizations, the jaguar was a nocturnal deity mediating between the living and the dead, we learn in the rest of the course, which highlights the ancient link between humans and felines.

The epic of the domestic cat closes the exhibition, with a moving reconstruction of the oldest known tomb containing a cat, buried with a man in Cyprus 9,500 years ago.

"Victor Hugo wrote +God invented the cat so that man has a tiger to pet at home+", recalls Sophie Grisolia, designer of the exhibition.

© 2023 AFP