Living like a hidden society below the grounds, the rats have become a big part of Paris – “La Ville des Lumières” (the City of blinding lights) and so have the pigeons. They are hanging out and are not even scared of the people trying to approach them. How come the situation has become so bad that rats often appear outside of the cellars or tunnels they usually live in? Why are there so many pigeons in the city and why do some people keep on giving them food even though it is now forbidden? Are these pest animals really a threat for the city? Or can they be useful? This is a journey to the filthiest sewers of Paris.
THE CITY OF FLYING MUCK – “As big as a cat”. The French like to exaggerate when they tell you a story. But when it comes to rats, they are usually quite close to the truth: they are everywhere in the city. It is said that wherever you are standing, there is one less than 30 feeaway.
Picture what is happening below while you are walking in the streets: six million rats live in Paris, the French capital city. That is an average of four rats per person and up to eight depending on which neighbourhood you are referring to.
During periods of works, especially on the underground, the rodents become quite disoriented – and escape outside. That is what is happening currently in the metro station Strasbourg Saint-Denis (2nddistrict of Paris), where renovation work is taking place during the night. Rats and mice, which usually live there, have to find other places to go and they often find garbage bins for shelters. A similar situation happened two years ago, when the tramway line in the 18th district was renovated. The Internet website of the district (www.dixhuitinfo.com) released at the time several assessments during which people said that the rats were “jumping out of litter bins”, “living under piles of leaves” and even “attacking pigeons”.
“AN EVERYDAY CHORE”– Pigeon: that is the other animal considered a pest implanted in Paris. The pigeons are ironically called “flying rats” because of their capacity to reproduce very fast and to invade the premises: roofs, terraces, balconies or window frames. Now present in the city for more than a century ago (they escaped and settled in Paris from captive breeding from the 1900s), pigeons have actually become a problem these past twenty years.
“They are everywhere. In the morning, you can hear them coo but there is no way to reach them to scare them off. They are clever animals and they build their nests on the roof tops, where we can’t go”. Chantal S. is a caretaker in an old building in the eleventh district of Paris. She has been doing this job for over twenty-five years, and has always seen the pigeons. “The excrement they leave is the worst. Not only it is hard to clean, but since there are so many of them, it is an everyday chore”. She confesses that when she finds a nest or an egg, she has no scruples about getting rid of it.
A move that might no be approved by some other citizens who consider that pigeons are a whole part of Paris. A Public Health act forbidding the feeding of pigeons in the streets of Paris passed in 1979 (any person caught on action will be fined €183 – £160). But many – and especially the elderly – continue to leave bread and other crumbs, often causing a big gathering of stray animals: pigeons, rats, mice and even cats. The law states “it is clearly forbidden to leave or throw any kind of seeds, or food in any public place that might attract stray and wild animals”. Feeding them does not help in their integration. The law passed not only to protect the citizen and the streets, but also to reorganise the groups (pigeon houses set by the City Hall are present in every district of Paris).
DESTRUCTION– Despite the efforts of the authorities, pigeons and rats still disturb the citizen’s everyday life. And, as the cold was quite strong in January and February this year, the rodents were looking for warm and heated places: apartments. Over the years, it has become a necessity to find help to eliminate theses unwanted visitors.
A store run by Julien Aurouze, “Destruction of Pest Animals” is located in rue des Halles, a trending street of the capital in the first district. It has been opened since 1872 and it is specialised in rats. The lovely window-dressing shows the dead bodies of various animals, trapped or poisoned. But at least they are honest about what they sell; this is the place to go when one wants to find dozens of products to neutralize unwanted visitors, whether they are rodents or birds. But they also have products against wasps, ants and many other insects…
It is “very popular in Paris and has been run by the Aurouze family for more than four generations” according to one employee of the store. They are the reference when it comes to pest control. The owners are clearly proud of their reputation (the store’s window-dressing appeared in Pixar’s Ratatouille in 2007 – a computer-animated comedy about a rat whose dream is to become a chef in a restaurant. One can understand the pride). And indeed the rat is the star of the store: “There is a reason why people come to us when they need help with the rats. We are the best and we started to build our fame thanks to them”.
Cécile Aurouze, the owner’s wife, says that the pests which cause the most problems to their customers are mice, cockroaches and especially bedbugs. About the rats, she says, “cold weather is an important reason why rodents flee their natural habitat and go to warmer places. When the winter comes, you can be sure that people need help”. The city hall of Paris used to also be a client of the Aurouze family. “They often came to us, and now, they recommend the store to any citizen who has a complaint about pests”.
The products they sell are part of a wide range and go from the simple repellant to the cruel but efficient rat traps. Also available are cages and different kinds of glue and wax supposed to immobilise the animal. The ones designed for pigeons are quite similar. The nets and the spikes they sell are meant to capture them or to prevent them from staying too close to your windows. But one can wonder whether these methods are really ethical. A long and sharp spike can be dangerous and might hurt the animal. As well as the glue, which stops it from walking and will weaken it after a few hours. The question about mistreatment of animals then can be asked, but Cécile Aurouze says she has never had any complaints from animal-defence organizations. “The only complaints we have are from some citizens, who are shocked by our window-dressing”.
The French organization Société Protectrice des Animaux (SPA), the equivalent to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) does not quite agree. The SPA has been fighting for years against any kind of cruel practices against animals, whatever they are. The communication manager Line Provost says the “organization is strictly against any kind of product which kills, especially when it is sold to anyone who can use it anywhere. Such behaviour can be very dangerous for the environment and can hurt other animals”. The SPA is quite happy about the work the city hall did with the pigeon houses: “it reduces the overcrowding and allows the species to get used to an area”.
The legal status of the pigeon is not yet defined in France. Line explains that, since it comes from captive breeding, it is neither wild nor domestic. She adds that negotiations on that subject are actually on: “the person in charge of legal topics for the association took part in a meeting in the Luxembourg Palace (6th district) last July (2011) to discuss the legal status of the pigeon and to work on the cohabitation between the bird and the citizen”.
With such creatures filling the skies and streets of Paris, can the French capital keep its standing as most beautiful city of the world? The answer is certainly positive but the citizens will have to find a way to cohabit with the rats and the pigeon. A big challenge, but the bigger challenge might be to control the reproduction of these species, which goes very fast. Actually, the number of rats and pigeons might overtake the number of humans in a few years if nothing is done.
[Written March, 2012]