Paris’ Love-Hate Relationship With Its Famous Rats

(Some thoughts on rats inspired by my Paris bike tour. Guest post by Brooklyn Fischer)
If you’ve been in Paris long enough, you’ve likely crossed paths with a rat or two or twelve. It’s no surprise, as they inhabit many of the same spaces as us, both above ground and below. If you don’t see them scurrying along the quays of the Seine at night (think about that before planning a romantic date along the water), you’ll find them in the bushes at most parks waiting for Parisians to leave the premises so they can explore the trash and have a feast.
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Trash is one of the main reasons the rats are proliferating in Paris. You know those fancy green trash receptacles in the city that hold clear trash bags? Well, that’s an ideal design if you want to make it impossible to hide suspicious packages. It’s also a perfect setup for rats who nibble through the bottoms of the bags at night and eat to their heart’s content.

Rats and the Cirque d’Hiver

Even if you haven’t laid eyes on any rats in the city yet, trust me – they are there. I’ve seen them bolting through the tunnels of the Sewer Museum (my first and last time there), traipsing along the periphery of playgrounds just feet away from my children and even performing tricks at Paris’ Cirque d’Hiver Bouglione. Part of the circus act included GIANT rats, which they called “les plus gros rats du monde.”

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I was getting a little nervous about running into one of those on the street one night until I looked them up and discovered they are actually coypus from South America. You’ll only see them at the circus. The rats running around Paris are comparatively small and harmless.

How Parisians Coexist With the Polarizing Rodents

So what is Paris’ relationship with rats? Many of us have seen the rascally rodents charmingly personified in the movie Ratatouille. As far as I know, there aren’t any rat chefs here. I do often see rats portrayed in street art. The other day I witnessed an immense rat sculpture/painting hovering over pedestrians in the 13th arrondissement.
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To me, it was more intriguing than menacing. It made me wonder, “Why are people so scared of rats?” I mean, a performer at the circus threw a pretend rat into the audience and a whole section of people basically lost their minds. Drinks were spilled, popcorn was flung, screams were heard. Anyone who has had rats for pets (like me) knows that rats are intelligent, social and affectionate animals. Also, in terms of personal hygiene, they are very clean animals. In fact, they are less likely than cats or dogs to contract and transmit viruses and parasites.

Parisian Exterminators’ Love Affair With Taxidermy

Can we take a minute to talk about Parisian exterminators? I don’t know if I’ve ever seen people take such pride in their work. Not only do they exterminate rats, they stuff them and put them on display in their store windows. I’ve seen it all: taxidermied rats boxing in a tiny ring, superhero rats (including Clark Kent opening his shirt to reveal a Superman S and a bright green Hulk rat with frayed shorts), a punk rat, a Rastafarian rat and bien sûr, a chef rat.
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Perhaps the most shocking window display in Paris is found at a shop called Aurouze on Rue des Halles in the 1st. They’ve got your typical standing stuffed rats, but they also feature desiccated rats next to wooden rat traps and poison pellets, and above that, two rows of taxidermied rats hanging by their necks from antique traps.

A friend and I made a stop here with Bike About Tours and learned that these rats were captured in 1925 in nearby Les Halles, which used to be a huge food market. The Aurouze family, who founded the shop in 1872, must know some talented taxidermists because those stuffed rats don’t look a day over two. (Two years is the average lifespan of a rat, by the way.)

If you’re anything like me, these window displays will stop you in your tracks and may even cause you to think deeply about these rodents. The whole rat scenario in Paris has me wondering: should we be aggressively exterminating them or is there a way to coexist? Could we force them underground where they would be out of sight, out of mind?
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According to Gilles Demodice, a manager in Paris’ Animal Pest Control Department, “Rats play a very useful role for us because what they eat we do not need to dispose of, so it’s very economical for us, and when rats are underground they also clean the pipes with their fur when they run through them….So we need to keep them. They’re sort of our friends, but they need to stay below. That’s all we ask: that they stay below.”
Whether you’re a rat lover or hater, one thing’s for sure: these critters are here to stay.