A photostory of our visit to Zoo del Pirineu as part of out post-TBEX blog trip around the Pyrenees of Catalunya. Don’t let the word ‘zoo’ fool you into images of animal cruelty and tiny cages – this is a labour of love, created by a family who truly has a passion for animals.

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Stania and one of her eagles: Zoo del Pirineu in one shot

Evanescent as flame, peregrins sear across the cold sky and are gone, leaving no sign in the blue haze above. But in the lower air a wake of birds trails back, and rises upward through the white helix of the gulls.

Only hardcore nature lovers will know The Peregrine, JA Baker’s book, published in 1967. The British writer discovered two pairs of peregrines near his house in coastal Essex and, for seven months, he followed them daily. The book is a magnificent elegy of the wild landscapes of marshland, woods, estuary and sea, and of these extraordinary birds, the fastest in nature, so fast that sometimes they’re invisible to human eye.

peregrine falcon portrait

Portrait of a peregrine falcon

Birds of prey speak of the wild. They are fierce, primal, pure. They are pure instinct, soaring over mountaintops, circling the thermals, following the smell of quarry. They are wisdom, having seen the world from a point of view that no other animal can match. It’s hard for a nature lover to remain unmoved by a bird of prey – JA Baker spent seven months outdoors, stalking peregrine falcons, becoming obsessed with them. Towards the end of the book, ‘the hunter has become the thing he hunts’. He became falcon.

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An eagle soaring into flight during the falconry show at Zoo del Pirineu

Mankind and birds of prey have lived together for four thousand years. The first instances of falconry were found in Mesopotamia, in 2000 BC. Since then, the art of falconry has spread worldwide, and it now forms an important part of the immaterial heritage of several countries, from the UK to the UAE, from Kazakhstan to Mongolia.

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A cute tawny owl

Like JA Baker, Stania Kuspertova is another person who decided to dedicate her life to birds of prey. After working in falconry for decades in Germany, she moved to the Pyrenees of Catalunya with her birds and her family, as the German climate was not ideal for her birds. They settled in Canalda, near Solsona, and a few years later Stania and family opened Zoo del Pirineu, in the effort to preserve the wildlife of the region.

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Stania and her tawny owl

I know, the word ‘zoo’ will make many of you shudder. I’ve been reluctant to visit ‘zoos’ for years, after learning of my sister’s horrid experience at Lujan Zoo near Buenos Aires, where baby lions are sedated so that visitors can hold them, and animals are kept in tiny, filthy cages.

A photo posted by caterina ragg (@soffioneleone) on

A photo posted by caterina ragg (@soffioneleone) on

(terrible shots from Lujan Zoo – Photo Credits Caterina Ragg)

Zoo del Pirineu is nothing of the sort. It’s a family business, borne from Stania and her family’s love for animals. They rescue wounded animals or babies who lost their mother, nursing them back to health. Birds of prey are trained to perform in shows – if a bird is taken too early from the wild, it will be unable to fend for itself.

The training of birds of prey mimicks their natural instinct – all birds are exercised regularly and allowed to fly, using food as a reinforcement to get them back. Sometimes, however, animals follow their instinct and return to the wild. Stania told us of a pair of white storks that never returned from their free flight. Perhaps they’re Africa-bound now, following the instinct of migration that is part of their chromosomes.

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Eloi and a raven flying during the bird of prey show

We walked around the Zoo led by Stania, who showed us the animals one by one. Each of them had a name, and she spared a few words about their personality. I was stunned to see a Steller’s sea eagle, the largest species of eagle in the world, native of Eastern Russia, with a wingspan that is over 2 meters. Then, we saw seven of eight Catalunyan owl species, including the clumsy-looking eagle owl and the cute tawny owl – Stania’s ambition was to have one each, and her ambition is soon to be fulfilled, as she was given a baby owl of the last species she didn’t have, that is now a fledgling and is being hand-reared by Stania and her partner Eloi.

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The sweet baby owl on @kympham’s shoulder

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The clumsy but cute eagle owl

The Zoo lies on the side of a valley, surrounded by the peaks of the Pyrenees. When we visited, we could barely make out some dots circling overhead, following the thermals. Stania explained they are wild vultures, eagles and hawks. Watching them hunt is incredible. They are able to see their quarry from a distance of several kilometers, and glide towards them at the speed of light, so that a ruffle of leaves and the commotion of other birds becomes the only testament to their flight.

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Eagle owl flying, with the Pyrenees in the background

Watching the birds of prey show may not be such an intense feeling, but it allows viewers to get close to the birds, to admire them in all their beauty and power. Birds of prey – from the smallest kestrel, to the largest eagle – are sharp. Sharp, piercing eyes, sharp feathers, sharp beaks and talons, they look like a blade as they slice through the air, following smell, sight, instinct.

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Portrait of a black kite

At Zoo del Pirineu, you won’t just find birds. There are foxes, wild pigs, stoats and ferrets. We also visited Stania and Eloi’s house, where baby animals are kept. We saw the super cute and fluffy baby owl, about ten centimeters tall, and a sweet baby fox that was recently rescued after having been found wandering the forest. Stania and Eloi aim to get foxes used to people, to allow children to get close to them without stressing the animal. Much of the work done by Zoo Pirineu is with children, teaching them about animals and the environment. For many children (and not only), a visit to Zoo Pirineu is the first chance to see wildlife up close.

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The sweety baby fox…

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And its grown-up counterpart

Our visit was quite brief, so we didn’t get the chance to ask Stania and Eloi all the questions we had about their work. They explained that running a zoo is a tough business, keeping them busy 24-7. Before running back to the animals, they said goodbye to us. There was something hawk-like in Stania’s gaze – a piercing look, as if she could see through you.

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Stania and the eagle flying

Perhaps, just like JA Baker, she has become falcon. I wonder if she has absorbed some of their knowledge – how the world looks from high over the mountaintops, how to follow the wind to get what you want, where you want. I only wish we had had more time, to learn some of that wisdom for myself.

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The fierce eagle

Scroll down for more shots from Zoo del Pirineu!

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A surprised-looking fox

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Peregrine falcon snatching the prey

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Another shot of the eagle owl

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A cute stoat, another Pyrenees Zoo resident

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A black kite

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A pair of mystery birds… anyone know their name?

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A baby eagle owl being hand-reared

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Tawny owl flying

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My little friend the baby owl

We would like to thank Zoo del Pirineu and Visit Costa Brava for having welcomed us on this post-TBEX tour. The tour was organized by Contrast Trip, a wonderful tour operator owned by a local family, offering tours around the Pyrenees of Catalunya. Definitely get in touch if you’re planning a trip to the area!

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23 Responses

  1. Corinne

    Wow! Who doesn’t want to hold a baby owl. I love it!

    Go Team #wkendtravelinspiration!

    • Margherita

      CUTE OVERLOAD! I went AAAAWWWWW for the whole day!

  2. Maaike - Travellous World

    Those are some beautiful photos! It seems like this zoo is a very respectful one, and I can only admire that. There is too much animal suffering in the world. This seems great!

    • Margherita

      Thanks for your comment 🙂 it was a wonderful experience!

  3. Ruth - Tanama Tales

    What a wonderful story! And, your photos are amazing. I have been to birds of prey shows and you feel certain adrenaline that you just don’t feel with other animals. When we walk around the beach, we often see hawks. I love to encounter these type of birds.

    • Margherita

      I love them too Ruth. They’re so majestic and powerful! Thanks for your comment 🙂

  4. Michele {Malaysian Meanders}

    I love all your photos of the birds in flight, and that one of the baby owl perched on Kympham’s shoulder is absolutely adorable. I’ve always been fascinated by birds of prey shows, but I’ve never been to one where the birds are actually free to leave if that’s what they truly desire. I imagine that running a zoo and rescue sanctuary is a labor of love, and I’m glad that Zoo del Pirineu is around to help kids learn about wildlife around them. I’m excited to join as a co-host of Weekend Travel Inspiration.

    • Margherita

      Thanks Michele! This is what makes this place special… it felt like a family home. Glad to have you on board 🙂

    • Margherita

      Some of them were rescued because found injured in the wild, others because they were seized from illegal owners. I know people hold negative thoughts about zoos… but this was a zoo just in name, it was more of a loving family home… Thanks for your comment 🙂

  5. Angie

    I’m so glad you explained that in this case “zoo” is just a coincidence. Since Zeno was born we’ve visited the Rome BioPark, the Lisbon Zoo and a few aquariums and we have vowed asa family to only go to farms with farming animals that are local to the area / domesticated, or to reserves and rescue sites.

    Zoo animals can develop a mental disorder not unlike a human psychosis called zoochosis…basically they go nuts. This couple sounds like they love the animals that they treat and train and sincerely hope to educate, heal and protect. I really wish that this type of culture was more diffuse. If every inadequate multi-animal zoo focused their space, money, time, research on ONE species that was LOCAL by creating reserves we would have a lot more appreciation for wildlife in general.

    Great post and thank you for hosting!

    • Margherita

      Thanks Angie. I have seen the bears they keep in the Warsaw Zoo, that look totally nuts poor buggers, pacing back and forth and staring at us with blank eyes. So sad. (they are actually visible from the street, no need to enter the zoo)

      This place was totally different. You could feel the love. Thanks for your comment 🙂

  6. Rhonda Albom

    Wow. This is one amazing place. We had a long term home exchange in Costa Brava a few years ago, I can’t believe I didn’t know about it. Your photos really capture the birds and bring me right there. Thanks.

    • Margherita

      Thanks Rhonda. It was an amazing experience to be there. Thanks for your comment 🙂

  7. Elaine Massey

    This article is fantastic! Best article I have read for some time. I am on the StumbleUpon thread for travel bloggers on Facebook and was just going to skim and Stumble, but I ended up following you on all social media and sharing on all social media! So glad they have a “zoo” like this. I wish there were more like it. I wish we could go. Maybe someday.