“Maman, Papa ! C’est Ratatouille!” screeched a delighted child as a furry little creature scampered across the Square des Batignolles’ playground in the 17th arrondissement. It wasn’t an isolated sighting. This jewel-box park, a prime example of the English style of carefully disordered urban greenery that Paris adopted in the 1860s, was rapidly becoming a vermin sanctuary. I’d had several brushes with rats on my daily strolls, so when posters announced a town meeting dedicated to the lutte contre les rongeurs I saved the date. If my neighborhood was engaged in a “battle against rodents” the rodents appeared to be winning.
Geoffroy Boulard, mayor of the district, opened the October 4th reunion at precisely 7:15pm and introduced the keynote speaker, Doctor Sylvie Petit of the Paris Service of Environmental Health (SPSE). During the rowdy Q&A that followed her presentation, the expert admitted that no one knows exactly how many rats are roaming around the city. (The often-cited four million rodent figure is not based on scientific analysis.)
However, Dr. Petit did confirm that the rodent population is indeed exploding. Full-bellied rats reproduce at a fast and furious rate, and Parisian litterbugs provide them with a moveable feast. Summer’s 24/7 park openings may have aggravated the situation as midnight picnickers are less likely than others to bin their leftovers.
The Square des Batignolles, thanks to the breadcrumbs that children scatter around the duck pond, is the rat pack’s answer to a Las Vegas buffet. The infestation was proclaimed so serious that the park closed for one month in late September so that the city could plug up nests, cover sewer gratings with fine, rat-resistant mesh, and yes… distribute poison.
The p-word provoked a vociferous reaction from the defenders of rodent rights who accused the SPSE of committing vicious acts of ratricide. This is not a small group either: An on-line petition circulating since last December, Stoppez le génocide des rats, has garnered over 20,000 signatures. “Cats carry more disease than rats,” argued a vet to a round of applause. “Why not kill all the kitties?”
“Why not use birth control?” (Because, Dr Petit explained patiently, the rats need to take the pills every day.) “Our tax dollars would be better spent fighting international terrorism instead of mice!” shouted someone from the back row.
That was a prescient remark since international terrorism has contributed, albeit indirectly, to Paris’s present-day vermin invasion. As far as rodents are concerned, the flimsy trash bins installed as part of France’s anti-terrorism plan called Vigipirate simply plastic-wrapped restaurant meals. Experimental rat-proof bins have already been installed in the 17th arrondissement’s Martin Luther King Park.
But for now the battle’s raging and to the victors go the spoils. And since rats actually LIKE spoils…
© 2017, Corinne LaBalme