Instead of sleeping, you lie awake, listening to the ghosts in your attic. You hear thumps, thuds, screeches, and scratches -- after a while, the scurrying begins to sound real. You rub your eyes, you reach for the Yellow Pages, and almost immediately, the question presents itself: Who ya gonna call?

Flipping to P for "Paranormal," you land instead, on "Pest Control" and jot down the first number you see. The next morning, the salesman you reach hazards a diagnosis: "Rats!" he says.

Roof rats, they're called. And, as you soon learn, roof rats can be dangerous. Hundreds of years ago, rats carried the bubonic plague across Europe. Today's rats carry pathogens in their urine, droppings, blood, and saliva and spread salmonella, typhus, rat-bite fever, hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, and other life-threatening diseases. And rats can be maddeningly difficult to avoid, and even harder to get rid of. For one thing, the roof rats in your attic turn out to be remarkably athletic. According to the pamphlet I was given by one local exterminator, rats can get into your house by squeezing themselves though half-inch openings. They can climb wires, pipes, brick walls, and stucco. In a pinch they can even pull themselves up sheer vertical surfaces. They can jump three feet into the air, or four feet across a room, and fall as many as five stories without serious injury. Once they hit the ground, they can gnaw through the lead sheeting, adobe, cinderblock, or aluminum siding on the side of your house or burrow four feet into the earth and work their way into your cellar.

Having discovered that rats are rougher and tougher than you'd ever imagined, you half expect the exterminator to show up in full-body armor, complete with visored helmet, polyurethane boots, and waste management gloves and speak in the Darth Vader hiss you associate with such getups. But real-life exterminators don't spend much time dressed up like Star Wars characters; to a professional, even the word "exterminator" can be problematic.

Take, for instance, the young man I met at a 7-Eleven recently: "So," I said, having noticed the company uniform, which came complete with a corporate logo and nametag sewn onto the breast. "You're an exterminator?"

"No," he sneered. "I'm a pest inspector."

Call them what you will -- roach-boys, rat-men, rat-catchers, terminators, pest technicians -- the fact is that pest inspectors are professional killers. Death-dealers in the name of property, or just plain peace of mind. And why should the rest of us be coy about it? The pests we'd like to see exterminated are roommates who won't pay their share of the rent, who keep us up at night, eat our food, and soil our living areas. Needless to say, their personal hygiene leaves much to be desired. And of all the vermin common to San Diego County, rats outdo spiders, bees, bats, mice, ants, and termites in terms of damage caused and diseases spread. When it comes to pests, the roof rat -- or Ratus Ratus, as he is known in scientific circles -- might be our most formidable foe.

Unfortunately, roof rats also constitute the fastest-growing pest population in the county. In fact, their population boom coincides directly with ours. And thanks to the new, hastily constructed houses that accompany suburban sprawl, there are more and more dens for the roof rat's iniquities.


San Diego's snails, fruit trees, and abundant sources of water make roof rats feel especially at home, and "Pest Control Services" covers 16 pages of listings in the local phone book. American Pest Control's slogan -- "Your Company With A Conscience" -- was the first one to catch my eye: Established in 1962, the shop bills itself as "woman owned and operated." The idea, perhaps, is that women can snuff out a life more compassionately than their callous male counterparts. But American Pest Control wasn't interested in a story about roof rats, and neither were the next few services that I called. It wasn't until the Hydrex Pest Control Company (which has been protecting San Diego County "since 1921") put me in touch with their pest control manager, Mike Zaludek, that I found someone who'd agree to sit for interviews and let me tag along as he did his work.

As it happens, Hydrex also occupies the humane side of the pest control spectrum. Their self-described raison d'être is to provide alternatives to traditional, and potentially dangerous, chemical treatments. Hydrex is proud to note that it introduced the electro-gun for termite control and relies on heat treatments to avoid resorting to hazardous fumigation. Moreover, my impression of the company ratcheted up a few notches as I glanced around at the decorations on their office walls: a very large photo of Albert Einstein riding a bicycle, and a series of Bayer Environmental Science posters featuring common pests and ants. As I looked around at the filing cabinets, sales boards, desks, and computers, I heard a secretary on the telephone: "Okay," she asked. "Are you sure they're spiders?"

Mike Zaludek is 44, and when he introduced himself to me, I noticed that his otherwise youthful face seems to have been etched by years of smiling. Zaludek exudes a kind of high-energy, talky cheerfulness and comes off as amiably intense as a warm cup of coffee.

"When I was initially trained how to do this job," he told me, "it was toss-packs: the tools we used most were called toss-packs, and they were poison feedbags. You used to pop the attic cover and take a handful of these things and basically throw them around in the attic. And the idea was the rats, if you had any rats, would eat the bait, and then the rats would go outside and die, and then you wouldn't have a rat problem anymore."

The subject might have been morbid, but something about Zaludek's cheery delivery made me think that he'd be an excellent bearer of bad news -- especially news concerning rats that have colonized the far corners of your home.

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