At the age of twelve he had read Robinson Crusoe and went with his uncle, a skipper, to the West-Indies. After returning from this trip he was educated as an engineer at the École des Ponts ParisTech. Then he joined the French Army and was involved in the Seven Years'War against Prussia and England. In 1768 he traveled to Mauritius and studied plants. In 1771 he became friendly with and a pupil of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Together they studied the plants in and around Paris.
"Barye's predators devouring their living prey indulge the emotions in a Romantic way of course, but they also embody a romantically moralizing point of view like those held by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Mme de Staël, and Victor Hugo. The Oeuvres complètes of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre appeared in Paris in 1834 and was surely known to Barye, for the author was the former director of the zoo in the Jardin des Plantes and one of the "masters of genuine poetry" for the archromantic Mme de Staël. Bernardin de Saint-Pierre maintained that a carnivorous animal in devouring its prey alive committed a sin against the laws of its own nature."