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'Ratatouille' makes star of rat-trap shop

Aurouze has been killing rats in Paris for 135 years, but the Disney film has made it a tourist attraction, of sorts.

August 17, 2007|Gregory Viscusi | Bloomberg News

PARIS -- Remy is an ordinary rat in Paris. Except that he can talk and has dreams of becoming a chef. It's not so surprising: Remy is the star of "Ratatouille," a new animated film.

Remy is shown a pest-control shop by his father, who tells him that humans can't be trusted and do nasty things to rodents.

To eerie background music and in the light of a street lamp on a wet night, the father points to the scores of dead rats hanging by strings in the window. The store's shelves have medieval-looking traps and boxes of rat poison.

"Ratatouille" has made Aurouze, the real-life rat-trap shop in central Paris, something of a tourist attraction. Rabie Cheklat, a 20-year-old student from the Paris suburbs, made a detour on a recent trip to the city to visit the shop.

"I vaguely remember seeing the shop as a kid, and when I saw the film I said, 'I know that place,' " he said. "I wanted to come have another look."

Aurouze has been killing rats for 135 years. In its window hang 21 dead rats, their necks crushed by steel traps. They've been there since 1925.

"We'll never take them down," says Cecile Aurouze, 34, who along with her brother Julien, 30, runs the business founded by their grandfather in 1872. "They are the emblem of the store."

While traps make for a more impressive window display, most rats these days are dispatched with anti-coagulants that cause them to die from internal bleeding, says Aurouze.

Old-fashioned rat traps are fine for people's houses but not for major urban infestations, she says.

By law, every basement in Paris must have rat poison sprinkled about. Some of Paris' best-known restaurants and food stores are important customers, Aurouze says, but "they would die from shame and be very angry if I gave out their names."

In "Ratatouille," Remy's attempts to become a gastronomic success at a Paris restaurant almost get him killed by the kitchen staff, until he joins with a struggling apprentice and directs his cooking from under his toque. And, oh, Remy helps him win the girl.

"Ratatouille" grossed $179.7 million in its first five weeks since opening June 29 in the United States, according to Encino, Calif.-based Media By Numbers. It took in $12 million in France alone in the week after its Aug. 1 opening, according to Box Office Mojo. Aurouze said she hadn't seen it.

Neither Aurouze nor Pixar, the studio owned by Walt Disney Co. that made the film, would give details of the contract allowing use of the store's 19th-century facade.

The shop is on a busy commercial street leading to the Les Halles shopping center, the former site of Paris' wholesale food market. Rat infestation was one of several reasons the market was moved out to the suburbs in 1971.

The 19th-century wooden cabinets and shelves of the shop carry very 21st-century poisons.

The store also sells traps large enough to catch a fox, canisters with enough bug-killing gas to fog up an entire warehouse, and glue traps wide enough to block a hallway.

Dealing with rats, mice and cockroaches makes up the bulk of Aurouze's $2.3 million of annual revenue, says Cecile.

There's no reliable estimate for the number of rats in Paris, and getting rid of them all would be impossible, says Michel Pascal, a researcher at the National Institute of Agronomic Research, who has led campaigns to eliminate rats on islands in the Mediterranean and Caribbean.

Most of the rats in Paris are brown rats, or rattus norvegicus, Pascal said. They are recent arrivals, reaching Europe on boats from China in the mid-18th century.

They are better suited to humid dark basements than their main rival, the black rat, although they don't climb as well.

A brown rat can easily weigh 1 pound, while most black rats top out at half that.

Aurouze said that although the movie has brought curious tourists to the shop, she doesn't expect it to bring more business.

"You come to us because you need to, not because you want to," she says.

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