Urban zoo: Rome's wild animals take back the city

Rome's wild animals make increasing inroads into city life.

Rome has a long history with wild animals, going as far back as the lupa, or she-wolf, who suckled the city's legendary founders Romulus and Remus.

In ancient Roman times the world's most exotic creatures were transported to the Eternal City before being slain in front of cheering crowds in the Colosseum.

There are countless streets in the capital named after animals. They are portrayed in the city's fountains and feature prominently in church frescoes.

Animals are intertwined with the city's legends, the local dialect. The city's stray cats appear on tourist postcards.

In recent years Rome's relationship with wild animals has entered a more complicated phase, with ever-increasing cases of creatures "taking back" the city.

This became most pronounced over the last year during the covid-19 lockdowns and the huge reduction in people, traffic and noise on the streets of the capital.

Either emboldened or liberated, animals and birds would appear to be testing the boundaries - literally and metaphorically - with changing behaviour patterns and increasingly frequent forays into town.

No animal gets more media coverage in Rome than the cinghiale, or wild boar, whose growing population and "anti-social" activity poses problems for authorities. 

Cinghiali have discovered that it is easier to rifle through the city's trash than go foraging for food in the woods.

Overflowing bins in the suburbs provide the hogs with rich pickings.

The boar can be extremely dangerous to humans if approached when there are young cinghiali present, and they have been known to cause traffic accidents, particularly for motorcyclists.

Cinghiale running through Prima Porta cemetery. Photo Facebook - Laura Corrotti.

Some people living in the northern suburbs of the city complain they are afraid to go out in the evening, with one school bringing forward its closing time to avoid children coming into contact with the animals.

In October last year there was uproar when authorities killed a family of wild boar which had become trapped in a playground near the Vatican, leading to an embarrassing blame game between municipal and regional bodies over who is actually in charge of keeping the animals' population in check.

Last month cinghiali "mugged" a woman outside a supermarket in a rural area north of Rome, relieving her of her shopping bags and promptly eating the contents.

At the weekend cinghiali were spotted pottering around in front of the Farnesina, Italy's foreign ministry, a stone's throw from the Olympic Stadium where the Euro 2020 tournament kicks off on 11 June.

Earlier this week the animals were photographed running amok in the city's Prima Porta cemetery.

Seagulls

Like the wild boar, the city's seagulls have also made some lifestyle changes. The first gulls to settle in Rome, in the 1970s, kept their distance from the city at first. They lived on rooftops and were never seen on streets or on the ground.

 

Each day they would travel outside the capital to the once sprawling Malagrotta rubbish dump, now closed, to pick up scraps of thrown-out food.

When the vast dump closed about a decade ago the birds were forced to search for food a little closer to home.

The gulls soon realised that they had all they needed right on their doorstep.

Encounter between a seagull and a rat, two of Rome's 'problem' creatures. Photo Il Messaggero - Francesco Toiati.

These days it is a common sight to see the birds tugging open bags of restaurant waste on the streets, as well as attacking the city's pigeons and rats, often using car rooftops as the setting for their gory feasts.

Crow attacks

Not wishing to be left out, the city's crows made international headlines last week for dive-bombing residents of the southern EUR suburb. Ornithologists say this behaviour is isolated and occurs only at certain times of the year, and only when people are near the birds' chicks.

Deer

A few days ago commuters waiting for trains at Cesano station, in the far-northern fringes of the capital, were surprised to see two red deer grazing in the tall grass nearby.

Wolves

Less reassuring are reports of the return of wolves to a nature reserve near Fiumucino airport, however experts assure people that the wolves avoid human contact and are not a threat to farm animals. The wolves hunt cinghiali instead. 

One problem facing conservationists however is the phenomenon of wolves breeding with dogs, leading to "wolf-dog" hybrids.

Political issue

The encroachment of wild animals into the city is taking on political dimensions too. Critics are quick to lay the blame at the door of Rome's mayor Virginia Raggi, who is seeking a second five-year term in office in elections later this year.

The reality is a little more complex, with multiple agencies involved, both from the city and the Lazio region, complicated further by animals moving in between public and privately-owned land.

That said, the issue of cinghiali 'muscling in' on the city is real and will have to be addressed sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, whoever is elected as Rome's next mayor will be faced with the difficult task of ensuring harmony between the city and its animal population, in a story that is not likely to go away any time soon.

Cover image: Wild boar take shelter from heatwave under nasone water fountain in south Rome suburb of Torrino, August 2020. Photo Samantha Peppe / Sei di Mostacciano se...