VERSAILLES, France -- The king is dead, but the molecatcher lives on.
He even signs SMS messages: "Molecatcher to the king." It's been over two centuries since Louis XVI was guillotined on Paris' Place de la Concorde, but the job of hunting the underground pest that so troubled French monarchs on the grounds of the Versailles palace still exists.
Its current holder carries on, business as usual, with a task that hasn't changed in centuries.
"It might sound funny, but it's serious work. My job is to make sure molehills don't deface Europe's finest gardens," says 36-year-old Jerome Dormion, the latest in an unbroken 330-year line of mole-killers in the royal palace and gardens visited by 6 million people a year. "We still have visiting dignitaries too. Imagine if they were to see them!"
Mr. Dormion -- who started out as a regular gardener before noticing a niche in the molecatching market -- keeps the roughly 2,000 acres of magnificent horticulture mole-free. The grounds include fountains, an orangery, glistening landscaped grass, Marie Antoinette's cherished farm and famed gardener Andre Le Notre's Royal Path and Grand Canal.
He takes the work very seriously -- but there's the odd flash of humor.
"I'm known as the king's molecatcher because Versailles is still the palace," he says. "The king might be gone, but the palace still has moles, loads of them ... which is good, as it keeps me in work!"
Versailles is a veritable hotbed for moles, unlike some other European palaces, since it lies in the verdant countryside some 7.5 miles outside the Paris city walls. Across the channel, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II need not furrow her regal brow, as her palace, within London, is protected by city foundations that prevent moles from digging through to the royal residence.
At Versailles, large mounds of earth mark out the path of the mole's underground kingdom, in which Mr. Dormion sets dozens of archaic-looking traps featuring two metal prongs that smash together to break the neck.
"It resembles a guillotine," says Mr. Dormion with a wry smile. He tried poison for a while, but decided the contraption invented in the 1600s was the best, not to mention most faithful to the historic role.
For their part, moles, solitary underground creatures with giant paws for digging, outdate even the oldest kings of France.
They first burrowed into Europe some 40 million years ago, and over the centuries have been the enduring bane of royal gardens in and around France. In fact, it's a small miracle that a myopic, near-deaf worm-eater that can die of stress if it goes above ground has survived so long. Zoologists say their against-all-odds success is due to a decline in natural predators like wild cats and weasels.intelligencer