The “Swimmer”: Milan’s heroic efforts to save a wild boar trapped in the city’s canal system.

Above: a bas relief at the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan.

It’s hard to say why a wine scribbler like me would be so obsessed with the tale of a wild boar that was trapped in Milan’s canal system for two weeks despite a heroic attempt to save her. My guess is that the story is an allegory for humankind’s alienation from the natural world. But that’s just me.

It all began earlier this week with a blog post about wild boars — feral hogs — destroying a small farm’s grape harvest in northern Italy. The story reflected a growing problem for humans and hogs in Italy: driven by lack of natural resources, the animals are increasingly turning to commercial farms and even urban centers in their search for food. In Rome, broods of wild boar are commonly seen navigating the streets as they forage through uncollected garbage.

After a university-years friend in Milan saw my post, she shared an anecdotal account of the boar’s tragic arc. But she missed an important detail. Mindless authorities didn’t try to kill the animal, as she told it. In fact, driven by compassion, the city’s civil servants did everything humanly possible to save it.

What started out in my mind as a Kafkaesque yarn about a wild beast cheated of life and liberty by heartless bureaucratic machinery had become a narrative plucked out of a neorealist documentary film all’antonioniana — an achingly poignant tale of humans unable, despite Herculean effort, to spare and revive the emaciated sow.

Here is an excerpted translation from a story in the Milanese edition of Italy’s national daily La Repubblica, dated August 18, shared with me by friend Andrea Gaviglio, a native of the Ambrosian city who owns and runs a legacy wine shop there, Vino Vino dal 1921. The hog was first sighted on August 4.

    Local police, public safety officers, and Metropolitana Milanese city engineers were all involved efforts to save the boar. They had dubbed the animal “the swimmer” because of its “excellent swimming ability,” which made its capture difficult following the first sighting according to firefighters. For nearly 15 days it seemed to have “disappeared” in a canal in Milan connected to the Darsena di Milano.

(The Darsena is a humanmade urban lake that serves as a hub for the city’s vast canal system. The word darsena means dock.)

    Agents from [Milan’s] fire department, together with agents from the city’s departments of fish and wild life and emergency management, had tried nearly everything in their efforts to “capture” the animal. A few days ago, they set two traps and video cameras at the canal entrance and exit (just before the Alexander Langer bridge near Piazza Tripoli. But the ungulate had seemed to have disappeared without a trace and its whereabouts were unknown for days. But then it would reappear as it ate the bait without ever being ensnared in the traps. That was when agents tried using the “trail of breadcrumbs” technique.

When they did finally “capture” the Swimmer, they were unable to resuscitate her.

In my view, the boar is a victim of humans’ wanton exploitation of the natural world. She probably fell into the canal, authorities believe, while drinking or looking for food around one of the city’s humanmade lakes. Her bitter fate proved too challenging for the humans: they were helpless in their struggle to free her from the very urbanity they themselves created.

As a famous Roman poet once wrote, naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret. You can chase nature away with your pitchfork, but it always returns [and reveals you for who you are].

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