PARIS (AP) — Both Nadine Mahe des Portes and the rat panicked when she inadvertently stepped on it on her walk back from work through Paris.
"I heard a terrible squeak," the property agent recalled with a shudder. "I thought I'd stepped on a child's toy or something."
When Parisians are literally tripping over rats on the sidewalk, it is clear that the City of Light has a problem. Professional exterminators with decades on the job struggle to recall infestations as impressive — perhaps that should be repulsive — as those now forcing the closure of Paris parks, where squirmy clumps of rats brazenly feed in broad daylight, looking like they own the place.
On Friday, City Hall threw open one of the closed parks, the Tour Saint-Jacques square a block from the Seine, to show journalists its latest anti-rat drive. The park in the heart of the city is only a short walk from the Pompidou art museum. Two Japanese tourists searching for Notre Dame cathedral, also just minutes away, thankfully didn't notice the rats in bushes just in front of them when they stopped to ask for directions.
The furry princes of the city were all over the park, sauntering across the footpaths, merrily grazing in the undergrowth and far more bothered by pigeons competing with them for breadcrumbs than by people walking past and the rattle and hum of the morning rush hour.
Unfortunately for City Hall's exterminators, they also seemed totally uninterested in recently laid traps baited with poison.
The park attendant, Patrick Lambin, said his morning round had yielded just one cadaver.
Before the park was closed in November, rats foraging for food hung like grapes off the trash bins and regularly scampered through the children's play area, sowing panic, he said.
Lambin suspects the infestation has been made worse by Parisians and tourists who leave food out for the pigeons and, in particular, a homeless man who swings by most mornings with bags of stale bread recovered from local eateries.
"The rats are profiting," he said.
In a 39-year career of extermination, City Hall's Gilles Demodice said he'd rarely seen anything quite like it.
"A few years back, you'd not see so many rats during the day," he said. "Now it's night and day, all the time. So it's a big worry."
European Union regulations governing the arsenal of poisons and traps that can be used against rats have complicated the job of extermination, he explained.
He said they used to drop biscuits of poison directly into rats' nests and seal them up, but that technique is no longer allowed, forcing them to instead lay black plastic boxes of poison — which the rats studiously ignored — among the bushes.
"It's a lot less effective," he said.
How many millions of rats reside in Paris is anyone's guess. Reynald Baudet, who works in the city's most famous pest-control store and has 30 years in the business, notes that since one rat couple can produce hundreds of offspring, the population can grow quickly, if left unchecked.
"This is the first year I've seen so many of them," Baudet said.
His store, with dead rats hanging in its window and rat traps decorating its Christmas tree, appeared in cartoon form in the movie "Ratatouille," the animated tale of Remy, a Paris rat with dreams of becoming a chef.
"The war must be total," Baudet said.