The scene is a busy car park of a supermarket on the outskirts of Rome. To the gasps of onlookers, a group of eight boars – four large adults and four boarlets – trot out between the cars and pursue a woman carrying her shopping.
One boar manages to tear open the woman’s carrier bag, cornering her against a car. “No! The poor woman!” “Someone should help her,” onlookers cry. The woman throws her food to the boars, making her escape as the boar family feasts off the asphalt.
This was one video that went viral in Italy this year, part of a steady stream of boar content that have inflamed passions, entertained and helped topple Rome's mayor as it came to symbolise the decline of the eternal city.
Behind it all is the dirty politics of rubbish in Italy, and a clash between humans and the natural world.
Fabio Grilli, editor of local news outlet RomaToday, traces the advent of the boars to 2015. This was the point at which the boar population began to visibly encroach on the suburbs, captured in smartphone videos that form the basis of the boar content economy.
“They are now sighted in north and south Rome,” Grilli said. “These animals come from the provinces, the hills, the woods, into the city, attracted by the rubbish in the streets.”
Boar tales are now a staple on RomaToday, with fresh photographs, videos, explainers and political developments providing for near-daily updates. (Recent headlines: Five Boars trapped in Rome playground; Boar family attempts to enter Rome court; Boar emergency; Car hits boar; What to do if you encounter a boar).
The topic is polarising. “Boars are certainly a topic that impassions our readers,” Grilli said.
For some, the boars are an extreme kind of vermin; images of them snuffling around the city’s chronically overflowing rubbish receptacles is enraging proof of municipal mismanagement. Others blame individuals for littering.
For a small but deeply dedicated group, it’s an animal rights issue. After a family of boars in a park was trapped and removed by local authorities, and rumoured to have been killed, activists took to the streets with banners reading “Shame on Rome” and “Justice for boars”.
Maurizio Gubbiotti, head of the nature reserve management agency Roma Natura, has little time for the activists.
“There are some people who think no animal should ever be killed. But this is an ecological protection issue,” he told The Irish Times.
These are no ordinary boars, he explained.
“The hunting world actually caused an extinction of native boars decades ago. They then reintroduced boars, and chose a different species, from eastern Europe. This kind is much more imposing,” Gubbiotti said.
“An Italian boar weighs 80 kilos maximum, and breeds once a year, producing two or three boarlets. These ones grow to 150 kilos, and can breed three times a year, producing litters of 10 or 12. And they don’t have any competitors. The wolf disappeared from Italy long ago.”
The plan to keep the population under control involves capturing the boars and giving them to the meat industry. “Just as if they were a farmed animal. They make hams, salamis and so on,” Gubbiotti said.
He stresses that while boars can be dangerous, they are generally timid. They do not intend to menace the citizens of Rome. “Wild animals leave the woods only for one reason: to find food,” he said. “The only reason why they would be on the streets is because there is rubbish there.”
Wave of support
Virginia Raggi was elected mayor of Rome in 2016 with a mandate to shake up the system. A lawyer and mother with striking looks, then in her 30s, she swept in as part of a wave of support for her anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which vowed to propel ordinary people into positions of power and vanquish the old guard.
Raggi was a rarity in the office both as its first woman and as someone not from the centre-left Democratic Party that has traditionally held the post. She inherited a chronic waste-disposal problem.
Italy has long struggled to find space for its rubbish, and the dirty work has sometimes fallen to organised crime. In regions to the south of the capital, the unsanctioned burial and burning of refuse is blamed for high cancer rates and gave one area the nickname “triangle of death”.
On the outskirts of Rome, the rubbish hills of Europe's biggest landfill site Malagrotta had reached 80m in height before it was shut in 2013 when European Union authorities deemed it unfit to handle waste.
Its owner Manlio Cerroni – whose nicknames include “Il Supremo”, “the Lord of Trash”, and “the Eighth King of Rome” – was put on trial, accused of maintaining a monopoly over waste disposal with the collusion of local politicians. He was ultimately acquitted.
Ever since, city authorities have struggled to find sites to manage all the capital’s refuse, on occasion resorting to shipping it abroad at great expense.
Along with her plans for pedestrianisation, cycling routes, and fixing the city’s dysfunctional public transport management, Raggi brought plans to increase recycling and tackle the waste issue by rearranging collection to be based on rubbish type.
The plan foundered. Rubbish began to accumulate and rot on the street, becoming so bad that a city doctors’ association issued a health alert.
For the boars, it was irresistible. They began to emerge from Rome’s hills and nature reserves and appear in gardens and sidewalks in increasing numbers.
A blame game erupted between the mayor’s office, in charge of rubbish collection, and the regional government of the Rome region of Lazio, where most of the refuse-processing plants are located.
It pitted Raggi against the president of the Lazio region, Nicola Zingaretti, a senior figure in the rival Democratic Party, just as the thwarted old guard geared up a campaign to retake the mayoral office in the 2021 elections.
The rubbish baron, Cerroni, now aged 95, agitated in the press and in letters to the mayoral candidates to be allowed to reopen his dumps. In an appeal to Italian president Sergio Mattarella, he lamented that Rome was in a “state of decay and abandonment” and appealed to be allowed to provide his services to “restore to the Italian capital the decorum, dignity, and prestige it deserves”.
Videos of boar sightings provided the background hum of the campaign.
Romans went to the ballot box on the first week in October. Support for Raggi collapsed. The high turnout that drove her initial victory evaporated: she got 19 per cent of the vote, down from the 67 per cent of voters who chose her in 2016, an unusually low figure for a sitting mayor and not enough to carry her through to the runoff round.
“Her name became associated with boars,” one political insider smirked. “I don’t have the statistics on what was the presence of boars before and after Virginia Raggi, but certainly the public perception was that boars were everywhere.”
The new mayor took office on October 21st: Roberto Gualtieri, a former minister for the economy and one of the founders of the Democratic Party.
On a recent walk through the city, it was clear that collection was struggling to keep up with the output of rubbish. “What a stink,” exclaimed one woman as she skirted a corner piled with refuse bags in the city’s historic centre. “Nice neighbourhood, huh?”
Gualtieri has vowed to clean up the city by Christmas.