San Diego's snails, fruit trees, and water make roof rats feel at home

After a while, the scurrying begins to sound real

  • Image by Mikhail Soldatenkov

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?

Zaludek showed me a decomposed rat skeleton, which he'd found in a corner of the attic.

Zaludek showed me a decomposed rat skeleton, which he'd found in a corner of the attic.

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.

"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.

"Before I got this job, I never knew how to read a map," Esteban said as we set out. "In Guam, where I'm from, you take a left at the broken-down car or the leaning palm tree. Now, my map book is the thing I read the most."

The first home we visited was a 9000-square-foot mansion in Rancho Pacifica. It looked more like a hotel than a private residence. After calling the owner up on an intercom, Esteban pointed out a few black pellets on the ground to his left. "That's bat guano," he said, matter-of-factly. I said I couldn't imagine a bat finding purchase anywhere on the mansion's exterior wall. "You have to understand that these are very small bats," Esteban explained. "They can hang from just about anywhere."

In the first attic we tried, Esteban found mouse droppings, which he described as "20 times smaller than rat droppings," but no sign of rats. No footprints in the attic dust, no chewing on the ducts, no grease marks, and no droppings 20 times the size of the mouse droppings around us. Outside, near one of three large air conditioners, Esteban spotted a dead field mouse. "Air-conditioning lines are highways to the attic," he said. Walking around the house, he showed me a few other ways in which mice might have entered the house -- pieces of chewed insulation, open ducts -- and then, at a pile of woodchips, paused.

"There," he said, "do you see that? Beside the insulation."

It took me three or four seconds to see a bit of pinkish cottony insulation among the woodchips. It didn't look especially remarkable, but Esteban kept pointing with his flashlight.

"You see it?" he asked. "A tail!"

It took me a few more seconds to realize, but yes, the tail of a dead mouse was wedged between the baseboard and the house's overhanging outer wall. I felt stupid -- the thing had been less than four feet away from my nose -- but the more Esteban pointed, the more I saw, and the more I saw, the more I wondered at how much I'd missed in the first place.

The mansion had hundreds of entrance points: little holes, big holes, uncovered cracks, unfinished fissures, jogs between points in the foundation. The owner might as well have put out a welcome mat for animals seeking rent-free residence. Esteban wrote up an estimate of what it would cost to plug up all the holes and presented it, and off we went. We hadn't found evidence of roof rats, but in Esteban's estimation, cases of roof-rat infestation in San Diego have doubled in just the past couple of years. He believes the population spike to be a direct result of the recent construction boom: Not only do these 21st-century rats have more houses to choose from, but the new residences are being built quickly, with more than a few corners cut. "Rats don't need to live in houses," Esteban told me. "There are plenty of sources of available food and water outside. But then you get a house like this last one -- and that was probably a $3 million home -- and see holes and cracks and points of entry all over the place. Why wouldn't rats live there?"

Our next stop was a much smaller house, in Clairemont. Hydrex had sealed the place years before, and there were no signs of further infestation. The traps Hydrex technicians had set in the attic sat in wait for unsuspecting rodents. A few years had gone by, but the peanut butter in them looked soft and tasty. Esteban explained that he uses peanut butter because it sticks on the trap, won't go bad, lasts a long time before biodegrading, and -- most importantly -- rats like it. (Cheese, I was surprised to learn, isn't at all effective; when Esteban sees cheese in traps, he knows they've been set by an amateur.)

Next, Esteban told me that it's a good idea to screw the traps into studs in the attic, to prevent caught, still-living rats from taking off with the unsecured traps, dying in some dark corner, and stinking up the entire house. "A dead rat'll give off a heavy stench for three to four weeks before it decomposes," Esteban said.

Hydrex's technicians like to set six traps per attic access, all around the opening. In other words, more than enough. Otherwise, a few rats get caught, and other, sealed-in rats start eating the trapped ones. "We've seen lots of evidence of cannibalism in rats," Esteban told me. "I guess once you seal them in, they can get pretty desperate."

Standard tools for a pest control technician include a drill, mirrors, a box of spring-loaded rat traps, a flashlight, gloves, sheet-metal screws, a staple gun, ladders, wire-cutters, quarter-inch hardware cloth, fix-all plaster, cement, mortar mix, and concrete patch. In preparing and sealing an attic, it's important to set the traps last, to avoid the risk of setting them off yourself after having set them for the rats. As Esteban showed me the successfully sealed attic, he wondered why the owner of the house had called Hydrex. But it turned out that her troubles involved rats outside the house.

The owner described rats scampering around the patio, crawling over each other, and dying in the swimming pool. "Some nights, it's quite a show," she deadpanned. But there was nothing Hydrex could do. "We can't seal your whole back yard," Esteban told her. "They'll still find ways to get in." Then pointed out the possible entry points: holes under fences, spaces between slats, thick bushes, power poles, and lines. In a crunch, the rats could simply climb over the fences themselves. The owner -- a dog-lover -- was left with the option of securing a rat-killing cat.

A week later, I accompanied Esteban and Zaludek to Oceanside. Our destination, they assured me, was a house that really did have a rat problem. Before the real work began, they showed me more telltale signs of a serious rat infestation. Rats blacken the places where they walk; the Oceanside home was covered with their grease stains. Next, they had me poke my head up into the attic and take a deep breath. The smell of rat musk isn't a horrible one, and it occurred to me that its purpose is to attract other rats. But the smell is unmistakable, earthy, and 100 percent animal.

Upon entering, I saw that parts of the attic were slathered in droppings, while most of the other attic areas -- wires, wooden ledges, holes, and cracks of many sorts -- had been blackened by rats. The marks reminded me of the time I'd spent stretching in the living room of my old white-walled apartment. When I stretched, I'd put my hands on the wall in the same place every day, then lean forward to stretch my calves. After a few weeks, I noticed that the spot I was touching had turned black. (After that, I'd broken the habit of touching my face with my fingertips.)

Rats leave the same blackness everywhere they go, and walking around the Oceanside house, I saw trails so clear that I could visualize the paths these rats had taken during their nightly travels. Esteban followed one track with his flashlight, showing me how, in one covered space outside the house, rats had jumped on certain boards, scampered over a rope and a wire, climbed up the stucco wall, and chewed through an area of old mesh. In the study, rats had gnawed through a window screen and walked right over the owner's desk. To illustrate the rat's ability to squeeze itself into the tiniest spaces, Zaludek showed me a decomposed rat skeleton, which he'd found in a corner of the attic. The bones looked collapsible, and much smaller than the rat they had once held up. "This place has a big rat problem," Zaludek said, employing a good bit of understatement. "As we speak, there could be more than ten rats within earshot of us. And tonight, after we seal all of this up, they'll start trying to come back through their old holes. Unless they put out poison boxes, and try to knock down the exterior population, there'll probably be rats living in and around this house forever, whether they can get inside or not."

As if that weren't enough, this Oceanside house also had termites. Zaludek showed me the signs: tiny "kickout holes" that are caused when termites kick out their fecal pellets through holes in the wood. After Zaludek had spent a few minutes telling me what termites can do to a house, and describing actions exterminators might perform to get rid of them, I realized I would never look at a hollow wall the same way again. Rodent control makes up only one-third of the business for Hydrex. Termites account for most of the rest. Zaludek told me that termites can take years to become detectable in a house, and by the time you can tell that they're there, the house may already be structurally compromised. Huge colonies can chew through beams, nest, reproduce, and chew through the remaining beams. And, unless you know what to look for (kickout holes, for instance), you might not even realize that termites are there.

There are some effective options for termite control, and chemical, gas, and electro-gun treatments can significantly reduce termite populations. But, having listened to Zaludek talk about termites clicking their heads together inside hollowed pieces of wood, I began to wonder if termites aren't the true heirs of our households, with the rest of us just passing through. Up in the attic, Esteban was screwing hardware cloth into sheet-metal frames and closing off openings where rats had been getting in. As he ducked under a low beam, he placed his flashlight down, facing it in the right direction to help him see. I asked if he could use a miner's helmet, the kind with a light on it. Esteban laughed and said he'd gotten nail-ends stuck in his head at least a dozen times over the years. "I usually wear a baseball cap," he said.

To finish off this access point, Esteban drew the customary map of where he'd set traps. "I don't know any other companies who draw maps," he said. "But it's a really good idea. You don't know how long it might be before you come back to a place where you've set traps. And you also don't know if another technician is going to come back instead of you. But these traps can hurt if you trip one accidentally, so hopefully the maps help." A few minutes later, Esteban and Zaludek were both outside, perched atop six-foot stepladders, cutting and screwing hardware cloth over rat-blackened holes. They talked and joked a bit, discussed meshing techniques, then turned to the state of the pest control industry.

"It's hard for me to find good workers," Zaludek said. "We've got an ad in the paper right now, and they say there's an unemployment problem in this country, but I've got so much trouble finding and keeping folks with good work ethics. That's all you need to get into this trade, really. You come to me with a clean driving record and a good work ethic, and I'll teach you all the rest."

Zaludek, who picked his profession in order to avoid the drudgery of a desk job, pays his new, inexperienced technicians about $1700 a month and expects them to work a 40-hour week. New inspectors make a 20 percent commission on top of salary for the jobs they bring in.

"That's why we're out here today, Paul and I," Zaludek continued. "The guy who was supposed to do this job called in sick, and there was no one else to cover for him, so we had to juggle all the routes and come out here ourselves." A bit later, in the course of screwing yet another piece of wire mesh over a hole, Zaludek said, "I could hire guys who don't work hard, who have bad appearances and who aren't friendly with people, and then I could really grow the business. But that's not the way to do it. Then, our customers wouldn't come back to us, and they wouldn't tell other people about us, and it would only be a short-term-gain situation. I can't work like that. So instead, we've got a shortage of good folks working for us."

Walking around the house's perimeter, sealing up vents, holes, and potential crawl spaces, commenting on the hot weather, and humming to themselves, Esteban and Zaludek seemed almost like surgeons, with steady and skilled hands that patched and sewed and cleared the home of outside infections. At times, they even sounded like surgeons: "Hand me that staple gun, will you?" Or, "Do you have an extra piece of mesh?" Without another word, they'd pass the tools of their trade to each other.

A few hours later, the house was sealed so tightly that no new rats could enter. A few days later, Zaludek or Esteban would return to check the traps. "That's the litmus test," Zaludek said. "If the traps are filled, we'll empty them. We'll keep on setting, emptying, and reset, until the traps come up empty, and that's how we'll know that there's no more rats inside the house. Afterwards, we'll come to clean things up a little: We'll use sanitizer and deodorizer, vacuum cleaners -- that's when we get to wear those cool Tyvek suits." He laughed. "Those suits are scary," he said. And then he had an idea: "Maybe that's how we should do it. We could show up in full Tyvek on the first day of a job and scare people into thinking that the rats are an even bigger, more dangerous problem than they really are. That would be one way to grow the business!"

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