In addition to 235 carcasses stuffed in a freezer, police found several cages of living dormice which were fattened for killing. Three people were arrested on suspicion of the capture and killing of a protected species.
Although it is illegal to hunt or eat, dormice are a popular delicacy in parts of southern Italy and some restaurants serve them in secret, keeping their fluffy tails intact so they can be distinguished from other mice.
But they are particularly appreciated by members of the powerful Calabrian mafia clan ‘Ndrangheta, who are said to have served them to guests at reconciliation dinners.
“When the police listened to Mafia phone calls during drug trafficking investigations, they learned that after clan conflicts they were having peaceful dinners where they ate dormice,” said Giovanni Malara, founder of the anti-poaching group, Gruppo Adorno.
According to the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera, the bosses of the ‘Ndrangheta – one of the richest criminal groups in the world – would make their most important decisions in front of a plate of dormice.
The tradition of eating dormice dates back as far as the Romans when they were a luxury snack for the wealthy. They replaced their insides with minced pork and baked them in the oven. They are still consumed in Croatia and Slovenia.
Hunters often take baby dormice from their nests or catch older ones when they emerge weakened from their winter hibernation in June.
“It’s cruel to hunt them and keep them in cages, it’s mistreatment of a wild animal that is protected by law,” says Francesca Manzia, from Lipu, a wildlife charity.