City of rats

The problem is on the rise and it doesn’t only affect Warsaw. Someone has estimated that in Polish conurbations, there are three rats per inhabitant.

A little rat in the doors of a Warsaw restaurant shouldn’t have spoiled my good mood but it really wasn’t the nice Remy from “Ratatouille”, children’s and adults’ favourite film. It was dirty, thin and not very faint-hearted, which actually made me all the more apprehensive. For wild animals, even if urban, should be afraid of man – but somehow this one wasn’t. One could only hope it doesn’t additionally spread rabies, because that rats spread other things is certain.

This is a holiday story, from just three weeks ago. We were sitting in the garden of a restaurant on a street in the centre of Warsaw, trams were roaring behind us, people, pouring rhythmically out of the metro, were gliding down the street. And under these circumstances, the rat calmly emerged from a hole in the stone casing of the door, invisible to us, and jumped up to the food lying in the street, a piece of bread or perhaps a cucumber. It then calmly began to eat it, which surprised me.

What can a waiter do? A young waitress had just approached to take the order, so, having lowered my voice lest I frighten her or the other diners, I showed her the intruder. Not quite an intruder though as he was yet outside the garden. The girl didn’t entirely believe what I was saying, but she took two steps and only then did she pop inside, deliberately without screaming, as most young ladies of her age would have probably done. A moment later she came out with a waiter, also young, so presumably inexperienced in such incidents, who also took two steps towards the rat. The latter kept eating, thus giving the waiter time to see with his own eyes that she was right. And he actually… did nothing, because, as a matter of fact, what could he do? Come back with a cleaver or a mallet?
Brown rat by a rubbish bin. Photo PAP / Photoshot
So the waiter just stamped his foot – he didn’t make a scene, probably because of the guests – but the rat felt really comfortable in this part of the street, which it must have considered its own, because it didn’t immediately hide in a hole that we couldn’t see, as I’ve already mentioned. Not without reason, because the invisibility of the hole and the rat’s deep knowledge of the topography made me wonder what exactly a waiter could do.

I have already spoken negatively about the cleaver or the mallet. Rat poison doesn’t work instantly – besides why would they keep rat poison in a restaurant (and should they be allowed to, it’s poison, and the restaurant stores food). You can shoot a rat – but with what, with a sling? And what to aim at, because the rat is fast, and the hole leading to its burrow is hidden? So what to do?

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE The restaurant does not keep cats, as this would only raise a scream from both sides. On the one hand the cat lovers would argue that these beautiful animals are in merciless service and are starving – since only a hungry cat will hunt mice and rats, if rats are not scared at all by a small city kitten, which I will come back to. Anti-cat people, on the other hand, would go on and on about by what right a restaurant keeps cats, even in the basement, what that is like?! Unhygienic and so on! Well, are rats hygienic?

So once again, what is to be done? – I repeat the question, duplicated on the Internet in countless variants. Call the services responsible for deratisation? But there are no such services in the sense of municipal services. There are only appropriate companies operating for private money and they will not come immediately either, because a rat hole is not a wasp nest and it does not threaten human life.

Even a cursory glance at this thread on the web shows that the problem is on the rise and it doesn’t only affect Warsaw. It applies to all large cities – someone has estimated that in Polish conurbations, there are three rats per inhabitant. Last year, a major extermination took place in the very centre of the capital: around the Palace of Culture and the so-called “Frying Pan” – a vast square at the entrance to the Centrum metro station. Tens of thousands of people pass through there every day, leaving behind kilograms and kilometres of garbage, including food – and this probably why the fight against the rats is doomed to failure from the start.

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Not only will we be pecked to pieces by ravens and crows [sorry to Master Stefan Żeromski, but the formula is begging to be borrowed], whose cunning in searching for leftovers of food in carelessly abandoned boxes and bags never ceases to fascinate us, but now we will also be bitten by rats. The scene I was involved in was rather unresolved. Today, walking from the metro station, I was looking at life in this garden: consumption is in full swing and the rats must have something to eat, not only that poor skinny guy from three weeks ago (I did not give the name of the street, so as not to advertise the restaurant or condemn it to ostracism with this description of a relaxed relationship with a rat, but all the data is there, just read carefully).

Time to get back to wild cats

The city will not deal with the problem, because the city has been digging up all possible streets leading to the city centre – all at once, which is probably not just a problem for the capital. Anyway, it is also a problem for rats, but they – as various studies say – can transfer information very quickly and are certainly better at communicating in the dug-up capital than its residents and visitors.

Am I kidding? Well, yes, because there is no other way out. I also live in this place and I have seen many rats here, although – I won’t deny it – rather in the evenings, when they sneaked under the basement windows. In turn, in the spring, in a nearby district of not so old houses, I consoled a young mother with children – untruthfully, but fully aware that I was doing the right thing – that it was not a rat running across the lawn in front of the house on Kazimierzowska St, but a squirrel or even a guinea pig (ha ha, that’s right, why suddenly a guinea pig that doesn’t live outside the cage in our conditions? I guess we both wanted to believe it!). It is a fact that there are no rats in the Łazienki Park because… there are foxes which definitely threaten them, and rats are not stupid. The ecosystem works! Well, but we won’t keep foxes at home...

So it’s time to get back to cats. They have served man for centuries, protecting him from rats (and mice, let us add for the sake of justice, although the subject is less frightening in the city). Cats have been disarmed, if we may say so, as there are no more wild urban cats. Animal defenders have taken care of them so effectively that they have locked them in shelters and raise a lament every time a cat gets lost somewhere. Does it still have a chance at all, given that a friend of mine recently decided – out of moral concern – to catch what he thought was a stray cat and feed it, or maybe call the city guards or other services (speaking of which, he wouldn’t call about rats anyway, as he told me)?
A homeless cat after some transgressions, during an adoption campaign organised in Lublin. Photo: PAP / Wojciech Pacewicz
Well, this friend caught this cat and found out at the veterinarian that the animal is chipped, and the chip has the inscription: “Free-living cat of the capital city of Warsaw”. Fascinated, he put a bowl of water in front of the block and let the cat run free. So there is hope that some cats are left and will hunt rats. Because when it comes to domestic cats, there is basically nothing you can count on. One of the extremely rare, exceptional exceptions is our editorial colleague, who allows her cat to be truly free: she lets it out when it wants to and gets up at five in the morning when the cat yells outside the block that it is coming back. But my friend has a feeling that the cat lives a real cat life and still brings benefits to the neighbours, because it chases rats. How many such owners are there?

The movie “friend” in a “live trap”

Now let’s go back to our leniency towards rats, shaped systematically by literature and art, most often film. It is not without reason that I referred to the nice Remy at the beginning, a smart rat from a French kitchen, which not only didn’t let himself be killed, but also achieved culinary mastery. I do not know parents of younger and older children who have not watched this movie with their children. Or when they were children themselves and are now parents. Please tell them that rats must be eradicated because they are vermin and can be dangerous.

Anyway, Scabbers, a rat slightly older than Remy – it belonged to Ron Wesley, a friend of Harry Potter’s and appeared in the second volume – also did its job and softened the readers’ hearts, and above all their self-preservation instinct. But I will not put all the blame on the young generations, since ours was also brought up on certain models, to mention just two wonderful and probably already classic British novels.

First, there is this typically girlish “Little Princess” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, whose brave heroine, thrown into a cold and hungry attic, tames a rat named Melchisedec there. She lectures “him” – and the young readers – that they make a pair of friends that prisoners and rats have made for centuries, an example of which is the Bastille. Melchisedec is, of course, charming, has a wife and children – and cares for them so nicely.

The second novel, “The Wind in the Willows”, by Kenneth Grahame from 1908, was immediately loved by readers. One of its main characters is Rat, in love with the river and his boat, whom one simply wants to imitate when he talks dreamily about the preparations for the cruise.

Was this followed by the anthropomorphisation of various other heroes of children’s imagination? – I do not know, but the process was continuous and the authors of subsequent ideas earned a considerable income from it, especially since they did not know the boundaries that could not be crossed. If we add to this various twisted and often pseudo-ecological manipulations, in which the fate of a dog, a cat or even a rat became much more important than the fate of the child, then there is indeed something to worry about.
The “Pokochaj Zwierzaka” [“Fall in love with an animal”] campaign in Lublin. Dogs, cats, ferrets and rats were put up for adoption – animals abandoned, homeless or taken from their previous owners due to inhumane treatment. Photo: PAP / Wojciech Pacewicz
Even the mouse and rat traps on the market today are “humane”: they are “live traps” in which a mouse, attracted by cheese or lard, is locked in a cage, and a person can release it in a meadow or forest. Another thing is that the mouse will expire from fear or heat before they take it to the meadow, but that doesn’t bother the authors of the idea. Nor do they care about the question why release it knowing that it will come back, because it is a “city mouse” and is looking for a warm shelter for the winter. And since it is bent on coming back, it will continue to destroy the supplies in the drawers and the socks in the wardrobe. It’s a mouse, not to mention a rat...

There is a problem, and a serious one at that. However, we are not in Rome, where even rats – though just as annoying and dangerous – may be an attraction caught by filmmakers and tourists from all over the world. What Piotr Kępiński described so intriguingly in his Italian stories titled, nomen omen, “Rats from via Veneto”: “In February 2017, the daily published a photo of a rat freely entering the Hotel Excelsior. Once in that area, the paparazzi snapped photos of Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra. From that moment on, it was the rodents that started baring their teeth at the lenses” [Wydawnictwo Czarne, 2021].

And finally – of course, I suggest the famous rat-catcher of Hamelin, because since there are so many literary and film references, this character from dark legends cannot be missing. But who could turn out to be such a flutist in Warsaw that would lead the rats out of the city? And which way out, when all the streets have been dug up?

– Barbara Sułek-Kowalska

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki
Main photo: A brown rat, rattus norvegicus, by a city canal. Photo: PAP / Photoshot
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