Gladstone, Portland (Spring 2023) – ROOF RATS – “True Control: A Glimpse at The Future of Pest Control”
In the future, customers will call their local environmental control operator and pay them to not kill rats. They will pay us to evict the rats and exclude their entry holes like we do with our popular “Save the Squirrel” wildlife eviction and exclusion services.
In that future (in a galaxy far, far away), there’s a few good reasons why we might choose to evict rats instead of killing them:
- If you kill the rats, they won’t be able to test your exclusion work and find the weaknesses in your Homefront.
- If you kill the rats, they will breed more (like humans after wars).
- If you kill the rats (as a non-rat eating apex predator), other wild creatures will miss a meal and our local food system will not be as strong. Rats and their natural predators need each other.
- If you kill the rats using rodenticide, they get really thirsty before they die and they sometimes target and chew through waterlines…and fixing waterlines is expensive. They will also likely die in a difficult place to access (like in your crawlspace between the insulation and floor above), and that smells bad.
- If you kill the rats, then you will waste valuable time you could use to build a better Homefront; and building (changing your environment) is in itself a repellant.
- If you have to kill rats, if you inspect and find all their entry holes, nests, and runways, then you will be able to use environmental control techniques (like excluding most, but not all entry holes, then setting traps around the main entry hole) to trap them more effectively. At worst, exclusion based rodent control is the best way to trap rats.
- Humans are champions of creating infestations. Safeway has an entire aisle dedicated to selling food to feed and domesticate wild animals. Wouldn’t we gain better control of our home and business environments if we learned to control and use those infestations instead of simply creating and killing off infestations again and again without any pragmatic storyline for all the creating and killing of rat infestations? Wouldn’t true control be the power to start and control an infestation; instead of unintentionally starting an infestation that quickly grows out of our control?
- Maybe the real problem is we don’t understand our relationship with rats/the wilderness? Or maybe our Disney fears keep us from wanting to engage in relationships with The Urban Wilderness all around us?
- In The End, the rats need their predators. They don’t want to become the villains (or your unwittingly domesticated house pets) of our stories. Wild rats are more healthy when they have natural predators that keep their populations in control. They don’t want to live in a colony that’s become so massive and infested they have to form large rank structures (like the military) to manage the limited food supply. Freer and wilder rat colonies are better for us all.
Yeah I know. What a bunch of malarky! Maybe I’ve been spending too much time in crawlspaces with the rats…?
Nevertheless, I’ve run across a number of service stories that have feed action to strange future thoughts like those >>
SERVICE STORY #1 – “I Called All Over Town!”
When Paige called I was cleaning the day’s dead rats out of my van. The first thing she wanted to know was whether or not I could clear the rats out of her home without killing them. It’s Portland. Every other person who calls wants to know if my service is safe for their pets, or if I kill animals humanely, or if I kill environmentally responsibly, or if I’m a “green” bug, rat, or starling killing company, or if my methods of killing are eco-friendly, or something like that. On the whole, I learned that the Green Customers often have less tolerance for pests than folks who don’t care how I do what I do. They want that _________ to go away and go away now. And all that bluster about wanting to be eco friendly often translates into something like, “Please kill it, but please don’t do or say anything that makes me feel like I’m hurting the environment in some way.” I think in another life I could have been a priest. You know, not the good kind. I’d be the super shady priest who sold absolutions and tickets to heaven to pay for my BMW and McMansion in Beaverton. Sometimes being a pest control operator feels like that. Maybe a more accurate character sketch would be Ranger Rick crossed with Doctor Phil crossed with Elmer Fudd crossed with The Disney Nature Hippie Guru who sold absolutions (maybe carbon footprints? or cool recycling bins?) to free folks from feeling bad about their contributions to the Global Warming Earth Killer known as civilization. Don’t get me wrong. I wept when I read Silent Spring in college too; once while I was reading and drinking beer, then once in the morning when I realized I’d spent my Friday night drunk-reading Silent Spring.
I didn’t tell all that to Paige, but I did tell her that her request wasn’t unusual and that I really didn’t believe she was serious about not killing rats. When I was done doing my best to not sell the service I was secretly very excited to sell, I was surprised to find that Paige was still with me. Her reply was clear. She wanted to pay me not to kill rats.
The story goes, Paige had found rat droppings (on multiple occasions) in her upstairs bedroom. Yeah, that’s right folks! She had rats in her bedroom and she still didn’t want to kill them! She had another company out and they claimed to have identified the entry holes (as shown below), but it only took a few moments of investigation to realize that the light from those holes was coming from the soffits.
I’ve spent more time presenting my plan for evicting roof rats to potential no-kill customers (followers of The Disney Nature Guru), than I’ve actually spent putting that plan in action, so what happened next was a first…
My plan for Paige was the same set up as I normally do: a) find and mark all the entry holes; b) set traps. Then instead of kill traps, I set Paige up with many live catch traps in their attic spaces and bedroom. The setting of live catch traps inside is often a deal breaker for most followers of The Disney Nature, because (like a wildlife service) live catch traps need to be checked at least once every 24 hours. I used to work for the global corporation “Ecolab,” who had a whole hustle about becoming “partners” with our customers. I believe that pest control is, by nature, a service that requires some level of participation from customers. It’s certainly not like buying the services of a plumber, handyman, or engine mechanic. In my time at Ecolab, I realized that the whole “becoming partners” thing was really a clever way to make customers feel responsible for doing the services they were paying us to do. So I have a lot of respect (and sympathy) for any customer who wonders why they’re paying me to tell them to watch and clear my traps. There’s a thousand and one hustles in The Pest Control Industry. And naturally, over time, because of those many industry hustles (thanks Orkin!) we have rightly put pest control operators in the same category with car mechanics and used car salesmen.
In a wildlife service, I get to blame the ODFW for making me make them watch my traps. Not so much in a no-kill rat eviction service. So instead of blabbing about following laws for the sake of following laws, we had a nice long chat and made up our own law for what we’d do if we caught one. The conclusion was, if caught Paige would release them back into The Urban Wilderness. I was thankful, because (as much as I’m intrigued by the idea of evicting rats) I didn’t especially like the idea of standing on my customers’ front porch and releasing rats back into the neighborhood. Something about that scene didn’t feel right from a good business practice perspective.
Three weeks later, Paige hadn’t caught and rats. When I returned to inspect my set up, I found that none of my markers in entry holes had moved and none of the free rat food monitors I set in the attic spaces showed signs of activity.
“Well that was easy!” I exclaimed, smiling as I broke out my ladder and did The Final Exclusion Service. “The End!”
The lesson I learned there was, if the home isn’t infested and its only a few of what I call “ratonauts,” then the simple act of putting a plastic bag in their entry hole can provide a temporary exclusion long enough to make sure the inside is clear and do the exclusion work that’s needed to secure the Homefront. That’s a deep thought for anyone who’s ever bought a reoccurring rodent service from one of the Big Generics who sell the story that they need at least a year’s worth of contract services to clear the rats from your home.
SERVICE STORY #2 – “The Wilderness Needs to Feed Too.”
When I’m not on the job and I end up talking about raccoons and coyotes (and how they eat pets), I will usually smile and say something like, “The wilderness needs to feed too.”
And that’s generally how I feel about pets, especially non-working pets domesticated for entertainment purposes only.
I’ve tried to my best to convince pet owners to let their cats out at night, so they can hunt rodents and “feed the wilderness,” but I’m only one lonely voice crying against the evil wind of Portland’s ballooning pet culture. Most days I feel like I’m the only voice crying against Portland’s ballooning pet culture. That conversation never goes well with anyone, especially when I add the part where Portland’s pet culture is a symptom of a larger conspiracy about how California quietly invaded and overthrew Oregon’s governing body in the 80s and now Oregon’s actually a sub-state of California I like to call Little California. And like any good conspiracy, it comes with its own army of reasons why I (and other true Oregonians) are the only one who Gets It. Obviously, “The fact that Oregonians no longer make fun of Californians anymore is because we’ve all become Californians.” Anyway, all that’s to say is, the vote is pretty unanimous: humans prefer domesticated creatures over wild ones, and most people generally enjoy the process of domesticating them.
I’m not a curmudgeon who hates pets and or the idea that domestication has become a recreational activity. I’m a positive person, really. It’s more like, I have a vision of a city where we have an active relationship with our wilderness…and the pet thing isn’t that. I mean, wouldn’t it be great if we fed The Urban Wilderness the right way, instead of domesticating it with bird feeders, unsecured garbage dumpsters, and food left outside for pets?
Kammie didn’t call me because she wanted to invest in The Future of Pest Control. She called because her tenants in Gladstone were experiencing constant scratching in their attic. After my first inspection, I realized that I was dealing with roof rats who were accessing an attic space that had no hatch, or way to me to access it. That meant I couldn’t rely on my traps to control the infestation. I mean, I could pull an Orkin and set Kammie up with a year’s supply of bait-station-refreshing services in the hope that the outside stations would kill em’ all. I could do that, but I don’t have the patience Orkin does. I wanted those rats out now.
To make matters more complicated, the rats tore a few of the entry holes in the cheap attic vents that were manufactured with only a thin mosquito net mesh to keep birds, squirrels, and rats out. I’d never used one way doors on attic vents, but I didn’t want to pull an Orkin, so I built four custom vent screens and installed a one way door on the vent with the main entry. Then I put another one way door on the other entry hole in back near the gutter line.
(the before and after for main attic entry)
(the before and after for crawlspace hatch)
It took a few weeks for the scratching to end, but suddenly–like math–my outside traps livened up. Once the rats lost their nice predator-free shelter in the attic, they started exploring the backyard in search of new shelters to replace the old shelter…only to find my traps! Yeah that’s right. The theory goes, it wasn’t my peanut butter or fancy rat snack mix that caught the rats. It was pushing them out of their routine, forcing them to explore their environment more. Which is exactly why you can pay a Generic all year to refreshen the bait poison in their outside stations, and then still have a rat infestation. Rats aren’t dumb. They will continue to milk a feeding route forever as long as it works, and they won’t explore anything new so long as they’re living large, comfortable, and well fed in their predator-free shelter. Rats need to be pushed (by force of their environment) into traps. And you’d think that any rat catcher who’d worked in The Industry longer than a few seasons would know that, but trust me: that seemingly conventional piece of rat catcher’s wisdom is lost on pretty much every company you can hire for rodent control. As proof, check their work vans and trucks…you’ll be lucky to find a pest control operator with a screwdriver, let alone a truck that’s supplied with all the props that’s needed for environmental control work: heavy mesh, metal flashing, patch cement, tin snips, saws, hammer drills, impact drivers, shovels, tape measures, foam guns (two sizes), one way doors, and a dozen different kinds of screws and fasteners. Most pest control operators run around with a spray tank full of pesticide, a bee pole, a bucket of rodenticide, a bunch of bait stations, maybe some real traps, and a big box of cheap glue boards to hand to customers when they call back complaining of continued activity. The Orkin Man has a glue board for every pest.
Not only did my traps liven up when the eviction was complete, something truly magical happened next. The first time I cleared one of my homemade outside stations, I opened the top and saw two rats caught in both of my traps. Then I turned the station sideways and checked the tube where the rats go in. I didn’t see any tails hanging out. At first I thought it was a new species of tailless rat, but the story became clear when I pulled the traps from the stations. One of my wild creature friends (very likely a raccoon) had reached into the tube, grabbed my catch by the tail, then ripped its body in half. In the months that followed, I caught about a dozen rats…and the raccoons ate half of them before I returned to clear my traps.
The wilderness needs to feed too.
I know there’s a lot wrong with this storyline, but at least it’s not the same old boring story about how we need to kill all the pesky bad guys in The End. Imagine paying a future environmental control operator to install a “wildlife feeding system” (or some shit like that) in your backyard, where your Homefront was strong enough to create controlled infestations like:
a) trapping mice and rats in your backyard and then leaving them on an alter of sorts for the raccoons and coyotes to feed on (instead of cat food). The idea being, your offerings will encourage real predators (not dumb dogs or spoiled cats) to join The Action of your Homefront and lend a hand with rodent control. Never mind the part where larger predators like coyotes, wolves, and bears are pet and baby safe most of the time, but not all the time…which brings us back to the part where most humans, especially those who follow The Disney Nature Guru, deep down have zero tolerance for the wilderness in their backyards
b) install a bird feeder (or forget to pick up your dog’s droppings) in your backyard to build up the population of “second shift” wild critters, so they can breach your Homefront and show you where its weak. Walmart has great deals on critter food on its “infestation aisle.”
c) install wildlife “shelter traps” in your backyard for roof rats, squirrels, and raccoons to control your new wild economy when it needs a little help from our planet’s apex predator. Old bait stations are great for this. Rats use them as shelters, or hangouts, all the time after you cancel your monthly pest control service and the company doesn’t return to collect them. All you do to turn them into traps is add traps. The more interesting storyline here is the development of live catch trap shelters. Imagine a squirrel shelter that had a live camera feed for endless hours of wildlife viewing fun, which could also trap a squirrel at the push of a button, or a similar environmental control system that encouraged the rats to eat your compost? Why do we work so hard to keep raccoons and rats from eating human food waste (park rangers feed and intentionally support the wild creatures in their parks all the time; the whole “don’t feed the bears” thing is there to protect idiot tourists from being eaten)? Is the idea of developing a positive relationship with these creatures so hateful? Will The Plague return the moment we let The Urban Wilderness in a little?
Like I said, there’s many things wrong with this would-be futuristic storyline…
SERVICE STORY #3 – “Drawing The Right Magic Line.”
A home and its territory (aka its Homefront) is where our customers draw the magic line between wilderness and civilization. All earth creatures do this, because “fences make good neighbors” and there are many good reasons for homeowners to draw and maintain good boundaries with our wild creature friends.
Businesses have territory Homefronts too. Unlike some pest control companies who seem to have no end to their territories (and hire door knockers to sell you on the benefits of their super largenesses), you can’t hire us to do anything you want us to do. For example, we’re not going to rush out to save you from the mason bees in early spring, or trap possums because you feel they’re dangerous, or kill every raccoon in the neighborhood to save the koi you plopped beside a known wildlife corridor, or try to trap a coyote who happened to wander into your yard, or set up poison rodent boxes in squirrel territory, unless we have a very good reason to do so, because in spite of the industry rhetoric any trap or poison box placed around your home that can kill large rats can also kill small squirrels…
Our list of what you can’t hire us to do is a lot longer than most companies. That’s because we sell pest control. Most Generics primarily sell good customer service. Or more specifically, they sell fear…and then they sell you the heroic solution to the problem they set up to begin with. I call it “freebasing customer service.” And you can tell if you’ve hired a “customer service service” by the color of their shirts. If your tech is a nice young man who arrives in a nice white (or tan) button down shirt that isn’t covered in crawlspace cobwebs, then you just hired a hero to save you from The Fear they’ve sold you. As far as storylines go, the hero who saves the shrieking maiden from the monster(s) that the hero (or his alter ego) creates is an American classic. The Marvel Universe is full of examples like this, so is The Mental Health Universe. In that universe, the hero who saves the maiden from The Fear (or monster) he creates or controls in some way is called “codependent domestic abuse.” We know it’s not normal to diagnose groups, companies, or industries with disorders (usually only individuals are made responsible for their brand of craziness, not groups), but we at Storysold: Pest Control do our best not to exploit the many irrational fear-based storylines the Pest Control Industry has sold over hundreds of years in order to make us fear The Urban Wilderness, so they can sell us customer service services. For example, in spite of what you might think after reading almost any generic pest control company’s website, diseases transferred to humans from wild creatures are very rare:
https://www.cdc.gov/leptospirosis/index.html – https://www.deschutes.org/health/page/local-public-health-agencies-confirm-case-hantavirus – https://www.multco.us/health/diseases-and-conditions/hantavirus
But fear sells. The Industry wouldn’t be The Industry it is today without The Fear of diseases from the wilderness, hiding like wolves in shadowy thickets, or better yet, monsters under our beds. The Generic Industry Storytellers are so good at their job, the word “rat” has become synonymous with “disease.” Fear sells reoccurring monthly services to customers who’ve been trained to fear the ants on their countertops, because they care about the health of their pets and children. The truth is a lot less dramatic. Coyotes roam free in our neighborhoods all the time, and they don’t eat our babies. Racoons sometimes sneak into our homes and steal cat food when we leave the backdoor open, but they don’t always eat our faces off. Wild creatures aren’t all Disney villains who will destroy your happy home the moment we let them in. You don’t need an AR-15 or a Desert Eagle to protect your home from the creatures of The Urban Wilderness (or any other wilderness in most cases). In almost every case, the earth creatures we call pests make their home in your home and you never know it. Very likely, there’s a tribe of odorous house ants in your walls now. There are rodents staying warm and dry in The Pink Paradise of your crawlspace or attic now. There’s roaches in the kitchen of your favorite restaurant now. This is true. I can site example after example.
All that’s to say, we know there are real “tigers in the jungle.” In most cases, the real danger to heath isn’t the individual ants, roaches, or rats. The true threat to our heath is a more mysterious creature that scientists don’t seem to pay much attention to (it’s damn hard to find books about these in the library). We call this strange creature The Infestation.
And we know from many years of battling infestations, you can’t kill an infestation by killing individual “pests” anymore than you can fight crime by killing criminals. Blaming individuals for the parts they play in systemic infestations is cathartic (like I’m sure ritual sacrifices were cathartic to ancient humans), but blaming individuals doesn’t end infestations.
So yeah, for those of you who might be looking to hire us, that’s where we draw our line. We’re interested in hunting down and killing infestations, not individual rats, roaches, or raccoons. Infestations are immaterial creatures like monsters and demons, so ironically, we feel a lot more like “real heroes” when we kill one.
Yet The Fear (real or imagined) is real…and the other hard line Storysold: Pest Control draws for our business territory is: even though we know it’s only our customers’ fear we’re treating for, it’s not our job to tell you folks where to draw the lines of your Homefront in the proverbial sand of civilization. The freedom to make that decision for you and your family is a precious freedom. We believe our role in your home is primarily a guide. That’s why our character Wilderness Security Guide is called Guide.The moment we start to tell you and yours where to go, or try to sell you a generic scripted treatment program that we feel is best for your Homefront, then we might as well surrender our business territory and go to work for Orkin, Terminix, Pointe, Ecolab, Axiom, or Edge where we can cram our square pegged Generic Treatment Program down our customers’ round peg homes. Our job isn’t to build your home for you. The freedom to build homes that are truly ours (and not The Same Old Story as our neighbors) is why we suffer all the ordeals we do to pay for that kind of freedom. We’re not pests. We don’t want to build our home in your home by telling you what it should or shouldn’t be. Our job is to help you build a Homefront that best represents the kind of relationship you want with The Urban Wilderness.
And that’s why we haven’t mastered the art of evicting rats yet.
Usually rats freeze and hide and read the scene when they’re processing information. Squirrels have periods where they freeze and hide, but squirrels are squirrelly. They’re more likely to flee though the opening we provide via a one way door than rats who’s first instinct is to study and explore the situation before they react. For that reason, rats (especially roof rats) are a lot “smarter” than squirrels. In other words, it’s easier to fool a squirrel because (not too unlike the would-be action heroes/hot heads we’ve all had to tolerate at work) they’re not strategic thinkers. It takes patience (and more time/money) to evict roof rats.
Usually the story goes like the service story I wrote for “Fred and Wilma” in SE Portland. Roof rats had made their home in Fred and Wilma’s home when they set up a bird/rat feeder near their home. At first I thought there was only one main entry hole and 3 other possible entry holes. I marked all the entry holes with bags, and then installed a one way door on the main entry hole. A few weeks later, I’d caught one rat in their attic space, noted that something had used the door, and felt like I’d successfully cleared the house. Then I noticed that one of my markers in an entry hole had moved, which prompted me to do a “deep dive” for entry holes leading into the hollow soffit that ran around the roofline like a rodent play tube.
Honestly, I was excited because there was no way I could set traps in the soffit. Evicting the roof rats seemed like the best move at that point, so sealed off the main entry hole and installed 2 way doors on the entry holes leading to the soffit. Then I put a sealed zip lock bag of rat snacks on the inside of the door to encourage the rats to use the door. The snack bag monitor is also one of the routine ways I track The Action.
I already knew that they’d accessed a new entry hole (because my marker had moved), but they didn’t announce their presence inside until ten o’ clock on a Friday night when Emily, our friend Aaron, and the whole Storysold: Pest Control team was enjoying an evening with Spiritualized in SE Portland, one of our favorite acts.
WILMA: Hey Jake, sorry I know it’s late. We have something big and noisy in our bathroom wall – or above the bathroom on the northeast corner.
STORYSOLD: Can I stop by tomorrow and check it out?
In the morning I popped my ladder along the side of the house and checked my doors. The snacks were eaten on the inside of both entry holes.
I was excited that I’d made contact with them. Classic call and response. I put two new bags of rat snacks in the door, and then tried to explain my plan to evict them to Fred and Wilma.
What followed was a lot of back and forth text messaging, where I tried to explain that it was normal for squirrels and rats to scratch and make noises during the eviction process; I tried to explain that in my hundreds of evictions and exclusions I haven’t had a rat or squirrel tear through any interior walls yet (usually they’re just moving through the voids, gnawing (as they do), or building a nest); I tried to explain that I hadn’t seen any evidence that they were giving birth (as Wilma feared), and I must have recapped my service story for them at least three times (verbally and in writing), yet I continued to get more texts than I was used to…
My plan was to wait and let nature take its course…eventually they would have to use the doors in the same way they would eventually have to try their luck for the food on my traps.
It was the panicked text I received on Easter when I was spending time with my family that finally woke me up. I didn’t think two weeks was too long to have rats “trapped” inside. Some rats and mice (called house rats and house mice) never leave the home because they find all their needs inside (some rats never leave the crawlspace because they can live off a drain leak from a kitchen sink). What I realized was that I wasn’t really listening to Fred and Wilma. I was excited about what I thought was best for their home. I wasn’t considering where they wanted to draw the magic line around their home. I’d fooled myself into thinking that all their communications were them being engaged in the adventure. I don’t think they were being passive aggressive, but if I had to hazard a retrospective read of what they were really trying to tell me, I’d say the message I was meant to receive was: GET THOSE FUCKERS OUT OF OUR HOUSE NOW!
So I listened. I explained that the best chance of killing the rat(s) now would be to switch the rat snacks with poison, but there would be a lot of flies as well as a chance of the rats chewing through waterlines before they died if I used poison. I wanted to be clear about the flies (and the possible plumber’s bill), because I received as many texts about the flies as I did the rats. The reply was clear. They said they were open to the use of poison, so I switched the bag of rat snacks for a bag of bait poison.
A week or so later, I returned and found that the bag of poison was missing and I could smell the death smell in the attic space. Turning to Fred, all I said was, “Looks like you guys got your wish.”
No more scratching after that.
To this day, I still don’t know if Fred and Wilma’s service story was a textbook execution of a prebaiting plan for rats living in soffits (or other strange smaller wilder spaces), or a botched attempt at evicting roof rats?
I’d be interested to hear what you think 🙂