Photo by Jack Gould

Big companies like Western and Terminix dominate the pest-control industry. But increasingly, scrappy smaller companies swoop in, scoop their clients. Armando Cosio’s two-man company, La Cucaracha, had just underbid Western and won a massive pigeon job at the main post office. In appearance Cosio made me think of a large, gloomy Atlas who’d just about had it from carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. At the post office, hundreds of pigeons were roosting on the open rafters, crapping all over the mail. The thing to do with the birds, said one of Cosio’s friends, also a self-employed exterminator, after you’ve de-pigeoned a building, is to haul them up to the mountains, kick back with a six-pack of beer and set them free at the rate of one pigeon per hour. Cosio and his brother and son wrangled the pigeons by netting them or trapping them in cages. Cosio’s teenage son had the brilliant idea of going in at night when the pigeons were sleeping. They picked them up one by one and stuffed them by hand into cages. Not knowing what to do with the first 80 captured birds, Cosio figured the humane course of action would be to set them free. The problem with that — aside from its being illegal — was that these were homing pigeons. The problem with his buddy’s dubious mountain-release idea — aside from its being insane — is that it entailed over 80 hours of bird time, and no one, exterminator or not, should have to sit that long alone on a mountain with a truckload of anxious pigeons.

Eventually, Cosio took the birds to a pet shop, where a sympathetic owner bought them for a buck apiece. And eventually, predictably, around the 100th pigeon, the pet-shop owner refused to take any more. “Armando,” he cried, “I can’t buy them all!”

The Handbook of Pest Control — the official tome all licensed exterminators regard as the bible — explains that the pigeons should be euthanized. “Only,” Cosio sighed gravely, “they never tell you how.” He was extra-grave that day because someone, possibly another exterminator, had stolen his truck with the grinning La Cucaracha rat logo Cosio had drawn himself, poisons, traps and all. The extra birds, which he’d been taking home, were piling up in a cage in his back yard. He’d heard of hunting clubs that would buy the birds to use for “dog training,” but calling around, he found none. In the end, after arguing with co-workers about who was going to have to do it, Cosio chopped the pigeons’ heads off with a knife.

The chopping he learned from observing the workers at a poultry slaughterhouse in Chinatown, one of his pest-control clients. A guy showed him how to slit across a chicken’s neck, toss it into a huge plastic trash can with other half-dead chickens and let it bleed out. Chickens, pigeons. Pigeons, chickens. Slit. Toss. Repeat. But this resulted in far too much squawking and flapping. So, with a remaining few, he wrung their necks with a swift grab, clench and twist. Instant death. Minimal flapping. It made Cosio sad to kill the birds in his own back yard, no less but it had to be done. It was his job.

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