Eugene's surging rat population has exterminators busy
By CHRISTIAN HILL
Jan. 08, 2018
EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — Seeing rat traps sitting untouched both upstairs and in the basement, pest exterminator Robin Morrison delivered welcome news to a Eugene homeowner last week.
The home near Hendricks Park was once again free of the dirty, destructive rodents.
The homeowner, who asked that his name not be used, was relieved.
The initial evidence that his home was infested with rats — a first in his 38-year ownership of the property — was several months ago, when he noticed bite marks on fruit he kept on a counter.
"My wife thought the grandkids were doing it," he said.
Then the rats chewed up the wiring in his dishwasher.
A call to Bug Zapper Pest Control, a five-year-old business based in Roseburg with a branch in Eugene, brought Morrison to the scene.
Local pest exterminators like Morrison are in high demand these days as pest control businesses, neighborhood groups and city officials all acknowledge a marked increase in the city's rat population, and a surge in complaints from residents.
They attribute the increase to the rise in backyard gardens, open compost piles and chicken coops that provide rodents a steady supply of food that allows them to thrive and procreate.
City officials have said they'll launch a public education campaign with Lane County Public Health and take other steps to help bring the population under control.
In the meantime, pest exterminators such as Morrison are the tip of the spear for homeowners who don't want to get their hands dirty and aren't wise to the sneaky ways of rats.
The onset of winter has long been prime indoor rat season, as rodents scurry to get out from the cold. So Morrison, 40, spends his work days visiting homes and setting and checking dozens of peanut-butter-laced traps — cheese isn't as effective, he says — and bait boxes of rat poison. He also seals in crawl spaces and other holes and gaps around the exterior of homes.
Summertime is wasp season for Morrison. He also exterminates ants, bedbugs, fleas, gophers and moles.
As Morrison visited his customers last week, they displayed a mix of emotions, from mellow to manic, about the rat infestations they have endured.
Earlier in the day, Morrison checked in on one distraught customer. The homeowner, who asked that her name not be used, saw a mouse earlier this year. She hired Bug Zapper to trap mice and seal her home. The firm caught more than a dozen mice at the house, but recent weekly checks had turned up nothing. During the latest visit, however, the homeowner showed Morrison two mouse droppings she'd found and put in a bag. Mouse droppings, much smaller than rat droppings, are relatively easy to identify.
Morrison confirmed that the droppings were fresh. A mouse may be in the house. He was perplexed but got to work setting up a box baited with poison in a bedroom closet where she had found the droppings.
The homeowner said she couldn't sleep in that room and was growing increasingly desperate about the situation.
"I can not live like this," she said at one point.
Morrison tried to reassure her. "We'll definitely get to the bottom of this," he said.
"It's like an invasion and it's an uncontrollable wild card," he said a short time later while driving to his next appointment. "Most people see their home as their sanctuary. That's where you are you. ... When something enters that home and then starts threatening to make it feel like it's also their home and it's unwanted, it can feel really, really violating."
With most customers, Morrison said, he attempts to strikes a balance by acknowledging their concern while reassuring them that their situation isn't bad as it seems. But for some customers, the only approach is to work to kill the offending rodents as fast as possible.
A pest exterminator for almost two years, Morrison said the biggest misconception of his trade is that he and his peers don't know what they're doing.
Pest exterminators must secure state licenses to apply pesticides. Morrison has been told Oregon's tests are more difficult than in some other states. Exterminators complete apprenticeships and pursue continuing education to keep their licenses current. They often do research to study the behavior of pests and their weak points.
But the second-guessing by customers comes in ways both explicit and implicit. Customers may tell Morrison to set up the traps at certain locations. Or he may find traps he's set have been moved by the homeowner to other spots.
"You're not going to get any rats in your fridge, I guarantee it," he quipped.
Wait, someone moved into a refrigerator a rat trap Morrison had set out in the house?
Yes, Morrison said, with the customer telling him, "Well, if I open the fridge, one might run in, and he's a goner."
Morrison, a married father of two, became a pest exterminator a year after getting his bachelor's degree in English from the University of Iowa in 2015.
Morrison spent his formative years in Coos County and held a variety of jobs — including managing a restaurant and working at an adult care center — before moving his family to the Midwest to pursue his degree.
His ultimate goal was to teach English and literature at a university. His passion is writing, and a target for Morrison earlier in life was to write at least a story chapter or two poems every day.
But after graduating at age 38, he decided that pursuing an academic career was too much of a gamble for his family. In pursuit or a trade, he moved to Eugene, where he had lived briefly during his freshman year of high school.
He read about pest control and was fascinated, realizing entomology might be a calling.
He secured all the necessary licenses and was hired by Bug Zapper Pest Control a short time later as one of its first employees. The firm now has seven pest exterminators.
The job, which includes managing the Eugene branch and training all new pest exterminators, allows him to keep writing, as he writes the company's blogs and social media posts.
Morrison said the uptick in rat calls has prompted the company to retool its practices. Rats are one of the company's least profitable pests, because it is so time consuming to try to kill them. The company charges a flat $399 for rat trapping, which includes weekly checks until signs of the rats are gone.
He said pest exterminators are setting more traps and at more locations in a house initially, and sometimes checking before the week is out, or at a customer's request. The aim is to exterminate the rats as quickly as possible to keep the problem from spreading in a neighborhood and save on the expense of future visits.
Morrison declined to divulge his salary, but he said he and his wife, a server at the Olive Garden restaurant in Eugene, get by.
He works overtime weekly, is eligible for commissions and is sometimes rewarded for the pain he may suffer removing wasp nests.
"When they (customers) see you jumping around because you got stung, they give you a tip," he said. "I try not to abuse that. It's a nice thing that they do."
He said his 4-year-old daughter has taken an interest in insects, and his 12-year-old son has expressed interest in following in his father's footsteps.
Morrison said he has told his son to think carefully.
"You have to want to go into a crawl space and get dead rats out in order to do this job," he said. "If you don't want to do that, you're not going to last more than a year or so. It's pretty unnerving, or can be."
He recalls the time he retrieved the bodies and skeletons of dozens of dead rats. The rats had turned to cannibalism after the sealing of the house cut off their food supply, he said.
There's the overpowering odor of decaying rodents and the strong ammonia smell from rat urine that he copes with daily.
Morrison chews gum constantly during his shift. He read that it helps surgeons tone down their gag reflex when encountering revolting smells. He's found that it helps.
Then there's interacting with some customers. He's happened upon domestic disputes during service calls.
One time, a giant of a man answered the door, shirtless, his torso beet-red.
He ranted about a monster bug atop his vehicle's gas cap, but Morrison didn't see anything.
The man went inside, and Morrison heard shouting moments later. He looked in a window and observed the man shouting at a wall.
Morrison left immediately and put a note in the system for the firm not to respond to future service calls to the address.
"I still get scared when I think of that guy," he said.
Despite the challenges, Morrison said he plans to make pest control his career, as he can return to writing when he retires.
"Unlike in previous jobs, having that many hats I wear in the company just makes me feel valuable," he said.
Does it bother him that he makes a living killing things — albeit creatures that most people are desperate to see gone?
Morrison said he has mostly become desensitized to it, similar to his previous work assisting residents at a senior care center who were too frail to clean themselves after using the bathroom.
"I don't think there's part of me that finds any glee in catching rats, other than just the standard OK, good, we're making progress on this job," he said. "Every now and then, you'll catch something and you're like, ah, I can't believe I do this for a living. I wrote poetry until a few years ago. What's going on? How did this come about?"
He acknowledged that he does gets pangs of guilt sometimes killing moles and rats, as they are intelligent. In addition, he has friends who keep rats as pets.
"I go over to their house and I'm looking at the rat, and I'm thinking this is awkward because I kill these for a living, like this is what I do," he said. "They're like, 'Do you want to hold my pet?' I'm like, 'No, sorry.' My brain is geared toward a series of actions you don't want me performing on your rats."
Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com