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The Exterminators 

Rats and roaches and the men (and women) who kill them for us

Thursday, Jul 24 2003
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Photos by Jack Gould

Rats!

They fought the dogs and killed the cats,

And bit the babies in the cradles . . .

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And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles . . .

And even spoiled the women’s chats,

By drowning their speaking

With shrieking and squeaking

— Robert Browning, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”

In the early morning, Rattus rattus scratches behind the bedroom wall. It scrambles inside the kitchen-ceiling light, brown body rattling the milky plexiglass shade, hefty as a well-fed kitten. Every night it roams the cavernous piano body, where delicate wires fan out like combed nerves. Every night it bestows the musician a tiny gift: a turd. The musician hates Rattus rattus with a passion. He calls Bob the exterminator.

From his yellow truck, Bob scopes out the lot. “Bet he’s running along that gable,” he mutters, eyeing the spot on the Neo-Victorian where the telephone line tethers to the angled roof. “That’s right, Mr. Rat-rat, I got your number.”

ALSO IN THIS ISSUE:Fred Reese is the night exterminator, the vampire, the rat man. Armando Cosio’s two-man company, La Cucaracha, won a big job ridding the post office of pigeons; the only problem was that he had to kill them. Josie Trevino, one of the few women in pest control, envisions a legion of trucks featuring her Desert Bug Stormers logo.

Bob sets spring-loaded wooden traps high in cabinets and behind ceiling lights. He smears the snapper’s business end with a dollop of mashed walnut. The musician and his wife shiver with delight. Doesn’t Bob want to put traps inside the piano? they ask.

“Absolutely we can put ’em inside,” Bob says gleefully, “just so long as you don’t mind cleaning up the blood.” The musician blanches, his Japanese wife shudders and waves her hands in dismay. No, no, that’s all right, catch him somewhere else.

The musician strokes his beard in concentration, plotting countermeasures. He is appraising his house with a whole new perspective. “When we catch him, do you want us to save him for you?” he asks expectantly.

“That won’t be necessary, sir,” says Bob, cocking his hat.

“Well, darn,” says the musician, disappointed. “Rats.”

It’s been said that if you removed all the concrete, glass and steel in all the buildings where ants hide out, you could still clearly see the outline of the city with the ants floating in midair. Add to this the termites, which, if they are of the subterranean sort, march in the millions per colony. Add to this the roaches, which, even if you baited, trapped and sprayed all but one egg-carrying female out of one apartment in a complex, that single female would simply pick up house, set up in the apartment next door and reproduce at a rate of 30 baby roaches a year, out of which another female would in turn pick up house, lay eggs, hatch her 30 baby roaches, and so forth and so on. Add to this the Norway rats, which, if you outfitted them with radio collars, you’d discover travel up to 150 feet in a single evening. Then add in all the bees, wasps, slugs, silverfish, fleas, moths, snails, roly-polies, possums, squirrels, mice and the occasional wayward skunk, and you would start to get a sense of what the exterminator is up against. At the musician’s house, we’d come in for a rat, but as we leave, Bob spots some ants crawling on the driveway. “You see?” he says earnestly. “If I do a good job with his rat, maybe later he calls me back to take care of his ants.” All an exterminator has is time.

 

I first met Bob De haseth on a rainy day in winter, the kind of day pest controllers argue about whether it is a good rodent-roach-ant day or bad. Bob works for Western Exterminator, and that day I was watching another Western guy, Rod, kill roaches at an apartment building. Rod was in the middle of describing the relationship between pesticides and cockroach death posture. “When you use an insecticide, you’ll find the roach flipped over on its back. Immediate kill. Roach spasms and flips over. But when you use a bait gel, which is a slow-acting stomach poison, the roach will be running along, and a day or two later his metabolism has slowed down so much that he just dies in the middle of whatever he’s doing. You’ll find him standing straight up.” He poked under a cabinet, and there it was, barely bigger than a fingertip, a little caramel-colored cockroach pitched forward on a front-leg handstand like an Olympic gymnast. “It’s an agonizing death, really.”

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