Saturday, December 13, 2008


Here at Gamone, I'm accustomed to the usual presence of a few rodents of a rural kind, which I hardly ever see. They've never disturbed me greatly, although I often hear noise from a creature in the attic who seems to be playing around with a walnut, no doubt trying to figure out how to hold it still while he gnaws into it. Naturally, on the rare occasions that a mouse decides imprudently to step inside the house, it doesn't survive for long, because I leave a few traps in strategic passage ways. To rid the attic of rodents, I once used to encourage the presence here of feral cats, but they're unfriendly animals and they don't necessarily spend much time in the vicinity of the house. Besides, they can breed exponentially, and the odor of cat piss in the attic is worse than the presence of rodents.

Paris, like all big cities, is a different kettle of fish. You often see black rats scampering around in train stations.

A few weeks ago, there was even a scary story in the press about a railway employee at the big Saint-Lazare station in the heart of Paris who was infected by the bacterial disease of leptospirosis (not lethal, if treated in time), maybe transmitted to him by the huge colony of rats that inhabit every nook and cranny of this station.

By chance, at about the same time that this incident was reported in the French press, I came across a news story about a fascinating experiment in the Sydney suburb of Mosman, on the shores of the harbor, where the splendid Taronga Zoo is located. The star of the project is an indigenous Aussie animal known as the bush rat.

These bush rats don't normally behave in the nasty manner of Sydney's black rats, which first reached Australia on European sailing ships. That's to say, bush rats don't transmit diseases, they don't gnaw the plastic shielding of cables, they don't venture into houses and they don't even climb trees to devour birds' eggs. All in all, they're charming creatures who behave themselves, most of the time, in a quiet and unassuming manner, with shyness. If I understand correctly, the only way in which Australians could hope to get in contact with bush rats would be to invite them along for an outdoor barbecue alongside the swimming pool... but it's not sure they would turn up.

The general idea of the project, to be carried out under the supervision of Grainne Cleary from the Taronga Zoo, is that bush rats will be released in the Mosman area in the hope that these local fellows will get involved instantly in terrible brawls with the alien black rats. Yes, I should have pointed out that the only thing that annoys a bush rat, driving him crazily aggressive, is to run into a black urban rat. In such circumstances, the bush rat abandons his normally calm behavior and attacks the intruder. And black rats, apparently, aren't nearly as tough as they're made out to be. So, the Aussie rats should normally thrash the foreigners and finally chase them out of town. That, in any case, is what should theoretically happen...

I sent off an email in the hope of obtaining more detailed information from the Taronga Zoo. I was wondering, of course, whether bush rats from Down Under could be imported one day into Paris train stations. If so, would the Antipodean rats become homesick? Would these Aussie exratriates succumb hedonistically to the joys of living in gay Paris? Or might they in fact, ideally, chase all the nasty black rats out of Paris? The zoo wrote back with a promise to keep my suggestion in mind, and concluded their email with a battle cry followed by a smiley:

Today Mosman, tomorrow the rest of the world ;)

Imagine me trying to import Australian bush rats into Paris. I would surely need to get an authorization from Nicolas Sarkozy himself. I'm trying to think up the best way of starting my letter. Maybe it would be preferable to adopt a direct approach, right from the start:

Dear Monsieur le Président:
Do you want me to implement a miracle solution to the rat problem in Paris train stations? All you need to do is to let me import a few thousand Australian bush rats into the great capital of France...

The idea of a miracle solution to the problem of rats brings to mind a poem that thrilled me immensely when I first heard it, as a child: The Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Although this legend was originally Germanic, and transmitted by the Brothers Grimm, we English-speaking children discovered the tale through the lilting words of the Victorian poet Robert Browning [1812-1889]. The first few lines of the story are as peaceful as a romantic fairytale, but we are rapidly plunged into rodent horror.

Hamelin Town's in Brunswick,
By famous Hanover city;
The river Weser, deep and wide,
Washes its wall on the southern side;
A pleasanter spot you never spied;
But, when begins my ditty,
Almost five hundred years ago,
To see the townsfolk suffer so
From vermin, was a pity.

They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats.
And licked the soup from the cook's own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men's Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women's chats,
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats.

As children, listening to our teacher's recitation of the start of this familiar poem, we would await the moment in line 10 where the vermin is about to be named for the first time. The teacher would halt deliberately for a moment, and look up at us, expecting an answer. We kids would then shout out excitedly in unison: Rats!

After Hamelin's aldermen refused to pay the piper, he charmed all the children of the town with his pipe, and abducted them. Today, if a filmmaker were to invent such a sordid tale about a disgruntled rat-catcher who meted out his money-oriented revenge by kidnapping a throng of innocent juveniles, his movie would surely be censored.


  1. Bill, interesting article on Rats. Contrary to your view on feral cats, we 'adopted' a feral cat and, despite taking away its 'manhood', it has come to love us (we continue to feed it) and has become a very friendly and loving member of the family. Further, since the adoption, we have had no field mice nor for that matter bush rats. We also inoculate our cattle against Leprospira bacteria. Bruce from the Antipodes

  2. Apologies, I meant Leptospira bacteria. Not an intended pun like your reference to "Aussie exratriates....."

  3. Bill, onya, mate!

    Sadly, I think we have trapped and desptached a couple of bush rats (do they have a white underbelly?) from our homestead ceiling.

    Only wish I were computer-savvy enuf to attach today's pic of our latest feral cat (2nd one this week), caught near wild duckling colony on our lagoon.

    Bill's feral cat undoubtedly hunts many other species, and if rural, then probably endangered species as well as the field mice.

    Feline faecal toxo and sarco are our big worries in this neck of the woods.

    Also, delightful to read your good writing.

    Ah... Paris! Je l'adore!

    KIFCAT, under down under.