Back from August holidays, residents of Milan’s posh Brera neighbourhood have discovered some unwelcome squatters in their midst: a rat colony. But while the influx of rodents may have caught locals off guard, the news didn’t come as a surprise to Massimo Donadon, Italy’s Pied Piper in the battle against urban vermin.
Just a few years ago city officials had sought out Donadon’s expertise on how to combat the local rat population, estimated to be over 10 million. (“On average, a city has about eight or nine rats per inhabitant,” says Donadon.) Nothing came of the talks, however, and municipal authorities took their eye off the problem, more concerned it seems with planning for the World’s Fair that the city will host in 2015.
But after a blistering summer and reports of uncollected rubbish bags left on sidewalks, sightings of brown rats – sometimes mistaken by passers-by for squirrels – have become more frequent. While the city-owned agency responsible for keeping streets clean places the blame elsewhere, merchants are up in arms about the potential damage to business since Brera is a magnet for tourists, who are drawn to its pedestrian lanes lined with art galleries, eateries and independent boutiques.
Forced into action, public health authorities moved to prune fruit trees to deny rats a food source. Yet overzealous cutting recently sparked an impromptu protest by residents, which included well-heeled ladies with handbags in hand placing themselves between chainsaw and tree to protect the neighbourhood’s greenery.
From his company’s headquarters in Treviso, Donadon looks on in amusement. Since the 1970s, he’s helped to disinfest cities from Beijing to Dubai – Rudy Giuliani even hired him to clean up New York when he was mayor. Today, his firm Mayer Braun Deutschland – he believed a German-sounding name would be more credible in the field of pest extermination – is a world leader.
Donadon puts his success down to intense research, which has produced a line of bait tailored specifically to the tastes of rodents. “Most poison today winds up killing many dogs and cats. Mine is made to put off pets. The bait also kills slowly, so other rats aren’t alerted to the poison and the carcass doesn’t leave a foul smell.”
To lay his trap, the bait is left in a small box, which is fitted with a microchip to relay data on the creatures’ movements, and mixed together with food – among Donadon’s discoveries is that rats in a particular place have a strong preference for the local cuisine. “If it’s Paris, then we’ll add in butter to the bait. In Germany, we’ll have a mixture that includes pork fat. In New York, there’ll be some popcorn.”
With success in 36 countries from Chile to Japan, it’s hard to imagine what Milanese officials are waiting for, especially since there’s a mayoral election coming up next spring.