"Well," he continued, "the rats would eat the bait; that wasn't the problem. These multi-feeding anti-coagulant baits were designed so that the rats would eat them over a period of six to ten days, and then, as they got sick and the stuff began to affect them, they were really being rodents and animals, and they would hole up someplace where they thought they were safe, and then they would die in some recess of the attic or in between the walls or someplace.

"The odor was just incredible. So we'd have these people who would call up and say, 'I have this horrible odor,' and we'd go out and look, but if we couldn't find it, it was, 'Well, wait a couple of weeks, and it'll go away.'

"Now, pest control companies have always done rodents, but the treatments weren't very effective. So when I started to get into it, we got a great many calls from people with rats in their attics. Back then, we used to go out with wire and mesh and some tools, try to find out where the rats were getting in, and lock those areas up. Get rid of them that way. I had pest control trucks, and I'd have my route technicians and my regular route guys do that stuff. I'd put the tools on their trucks, the wire and the ladders that they were going to need -- all of that -- but we just couldn't keep up with the volume. With a rat-proofing, the job takes a couple of hours, and you need to recheck the traps, because once you've sealed a house so that rats can't get in, the rats that have already gotten in can't get out. Whatever rats are in your house when we seal it are now trapped. Today, instead of baiting rats and having them die indoors, we'll seal the house, set traps for the ones inside, and catch them. Then we'll go back out and remove those traps; and once we've caught them all, the house should be rat-free.

"It's interesting," Zaludek concluded, in a philosophical tone of voice. "Rats are after the same things we are. In fact, rats have been commensurate with human beings for centuries. Food, shelter, and water, that's what rats are concerned with. And, of course, the house is primarily shelter."

Theoretically, if you were looking to keep your house from becoming a shelter for the local rat population you could head down to the hardware store, purchase the necessary materials, and seal and bait and trap your house yourself. In practice, however, sealing houses is a major undertaking, and experts like Zaludek know that figuring out just where and how the rats are getting in takes finesse and experience -- even talent.

"You get really good at reading the signs," Zaludek explained. "Back in the day, we'd block up an area and kill all the existing rats at one house. But after a while other rats would come in through the same areas that we had blocked up. I began to wonder: 'How do they know? What do they do, talk to each other?' It turns out that they do talk to each other. They use pheromone trails."

Ah, yes — pheromones! Rats don't have a monopoly on the chemical. Insects use pheromone trails to find their way back to the nest, and human beings trail pheromones behind them at nightclubs, bars, beaches, any place where opposite sexes interact. (The funny thing about humans is that we've lost most of our ability to read the very pheromones we exude.) But rats use this nonverbal communication technique to convey a wide range of information, turning pest inspectors into pest detectives, bent on figuring out just what the rats are saying about gables on your roof over the air conditioning lines on the side of the house. This, too, takes a certain amount of talent.

Just as Zaludek and I were winding up, a coworker of his slipped quietly into the room. He wore a clean, well-pressed, white Hydrex work shirt, with a red nametag sewn on the front. Zaludek introduced us: "Paul's the most talented rat-guy on the West Coast," he said.

Paul Esteban, 34, is the rodent department supervisor at Hydrex. He's worked with Zaludek since 1999. When the two of them worked together sealing up houses, folks used to call them "the Verminators," and I could tell that the two of them must have made one remarkable team. As smiley, playful, and as talkative as Zaludek is, Esteban looks like a man who could simply stare down the creatures he runs across. He doesn't look mean, exactly, but his austere eyebrows, spread over a lean face, make him look especially serious. I wasn't surprised to learn that Esteban used to work at an environmental company, dealing with hazardous waste.

"My work ethic is very hands-on," Esteban said. "I like working in pest control because it's always different. You can't just learn something and apply it every time, you have to go out and see the particular elements of each job. Holes in gables, using mirrors to see around and under spaces, looking for rat grease and the gnaw-marks rats leave when they chew through wood. It's always different spots where they come in: maybe vents, maybe plumbing, maybe gables. We seal them all with wire mesh, or cement, or hardware cloth. Rats are very intelligent. But I can outsmart a rat. As long as you set traps in the right spots, and you can find all the holes in the house and seal them up, then you will catch the rats, because they'll have to go to the traps for food. You have to think like a rat."

Zaludek had teamed me up with Esteban so that I could go out on a typical pest inspector's route and see what the day-to-day work involves. The plan was to visit the homes of a few people who thought they might have rat problems and then to head out to a house that definitely needed to be sealed against rats. As a rule, pest control is a lonely calling -- the kind that involves more than a little roadwork. Esteban, who drives between 140 and 200 miles a day, told me that his Ford Ranger -- an immaculately clean vehicle with Hydrex logos on its sides -- was only nine months old but already had over 43,000 miles on it.


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