Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants - Robert Sullivan (2005)

Chapter 12. EXCELLENT

So I RAMBLED westward, away from my alley, off to the middle of America, because who wouldn't want to meet America's authority on rats and rodents, if they were me? Who wouldn't temporarily suspend observations in their rat-infested alley for just a short time so as to attempt to make contact with a man who knows more about rats than anybody else in the world?

Shortly after I first heard about Bobby Corrigan, I learned from an exterminator that he was going to be speaking at a barbecue out on Long Island thrown by a large pest control equipment supplier, in a town called Hicksville. Accordingly, I took a train out to Hicksville and caught a cab in the rain and, in the back of an industrial park, found the pesticide distributing company. There was a grill with hot dogs and hamburgers set up under a canopy outside, and people ate inside the warehouse, which was full of traps and poison. I listened to several presentations about mice and rats, and also about roaches, termites, and flies, and I met people in the pest control industry who were offering special barbecue sale prices on roach paste and fly traps and rodent poison. I sat next to a guy who heckled a speaker when she said she was going to run up to the front of the crowd as quickly as a mouse. "Oh, like you're going to run eleven miles an hour!" he said, to the laughter of the pest-control-operator-filled audience. Early on at the barbecue, I realized that Bobby Corrigan was not actually going to be there. Fortunately, I heard about a huge upcoming rodent control conference in Chicago. Not only was Bobby Corrigan organizing this conference in Chicago—he was scheduled to give the keynote speech.

So I took another trip, figuring that not only would I meet Bobby Corrigan but I might get an opportunity to see rats elsewhere, to compare and contrast them with my rats. I went to Penn Station and took an overnight train to Chicago, arriving at rush hour, at which point I was able to stop in the middle of Union Station and lean back against a wall and watch people as they streamed in and out of train-track exits and entrances, in and out of the exits to Chicago's streets, of the entrance and exits to a restaurant also marked with signs indicating areas for ordering food to go versus to stay. I smelled the food. I grabbed some. After that I pushed haltingly through the crowd and got on another train to Milwaukee—a city that seemed to me to be worth visiting before I met Bobby Corrigan as it has a long tradition of being ahead of the curve nationally in terms of pest control. None other than Dave Davis, America's first and greatest rat expert, once said, "I have visited a number of cities, and Milwaukee is surprisingly good—no, let's say spectacularly good—as far as rat control is concerned." In addition, I'd heard that the mayor was going to hold a press conference—perfectly timed, as far as I was concerned—regarding rat control.

MY TIME SPENT IN MILWAUKEE was hurried—I mostly ran around. If I had been observing my own movements through the city that day, I would have noted myself

• arriving at the station, then immediately seeing, right where I stepped down off the train, a rat bait station, a Protecta model, manufactured by Bell Labs, in which the bait was stale and partially eaten—a sign;

• wandering tentatively across town and passing by the Wisconsin Workers Memorial, a park that featured a sculpture that is also a time line noting the years 1911, when Wisconsin enacted the nation's first workers' compensation law, and 1920, when Wisconsin drafted the first unemployment compensation law; a quote on a plaque read, "The 19th Century belief that unemployment was a matter of individual bad luck or bad character was deeply ingrained in Wisconsin and American culture, and the realization that in fact it was an unavoidable feature of the modern industrial economy came only slowly";

• checking into a great old hotel, the Pfister, a hotel from the days before Milwaukee suffered rioting and a huge recession and lost sixty thousand manufacturing jobs, from the days when Milwaukee was a brewery capital full of German refugees fleeing the revolutions of 1848 who knew how to make great beer and, due in part to their experience as chemists, rodent poison;

• wishing I could slip up to the Pfister's antique-looking bar and order a beer and wait for someone to ask me what I was doing in town so I could say, "Rats," but instead going up to my room and calling my wife, who told me to hurry up and call Don Schaewe;

• calling Don Schaewe, a rodent control official in Milwaukee, who was jealous that I was going to see Bobby Corrigan and suggested I come over and get an idea of the rodent control strategy in town prior to the Milwaukee mayor's rat press conference the next day, and who gave me directions to the Nuisance Control Field Office, which I subsequently gave to a taxi driver, who, when he heard the address, grimaced such that I asked him if it was a bad neighborhood or something, to which he replied, "Bad? Bad is not the right word. Worst! You cannot walk in the streets. Crime, drugs! I never pick up fares over there, not in my life";

• getting out of the cab, thinking the neighborhood didn't seem so bad, and then quickly knocking on the locked door and entering a nice office full of very nice pest control people;

• walking around the office as Schaewe showed off the large closet containing various rodenticides, which, he suddenly realized to his momentary astonishment, had a small mouse infestation problem ("Huh," Don said, "that's like somebody breaking into a concentration camp"), then listening as Schaewe talked about, first, the old days when the rodent control staff used a meat-based rat poison and ground the meat on an old meat grinder that is still there, and second, a recent innovation in which computers are linking crime to rodent infestation;

• taking a ride with Don to the neighborhood where the mayor was going to hold a rat press conference the next day, and seeing evidence of serious rat infestation in the alleys behind the neighborhood of modest one- and two-family homes that either looked as if they had seen tough times but were well kept or looked the same but weren't well kept and had lots of trash littered on their lawns—along with evidence of serious infestation that included rat trails, rat burrows, and dead rats;

• getting a ride from Don back downtown, where he dropped me off at a sausage place (where I ate some of the best sausage I've ever tasted), from where I proceeded to the Milwaukee Public Library, where I looked at beautiful Audubon prints and read about Milwaukee's rat control history, noting, for example, the numerous "Starve a Rat" campaigns, the free rat films the city showed in rat-infested neighborhoods (titles included Listen to the Rat Man, Professor Rat, and The Rat King), and the guy who went around in a rat suit giving kids rat pins—the health department's uniformed sanitarian in the fifties, Lieutenant Archibald Kowald, used to say, "We look upon people as souls, and we want them to have a better world to live in";

• then heading to Maeders, an old German restaurant that Don had recommended ("The last time we went there my wife wanted to try duck so she asked for duck and they gave her a whole duck!"), where I drank two huge glasses of German beer and had a sampler plate that included goulash, schnitzel, pork loin, and what was billed as "Germany's favorite soup," a soup made with duck and liver pate, not to mention dessert;

• then—after I'd paid the bill and read the thank-you letters from overweight, dead celebrities on the wall, in addition to thank-you letters from healthier-looking celebrities like Boris Karloff ("If I had a whole regiment with me I could have done justice to the meal you placed before me . . .," wrote Karloff, in a pleasing cursive)—heading into the alleys of Milwaukee looking for rats and having trouble: feeling fat, bloated, practically rolling through the alleys downtown, looking for trash and rats and seeing neither, realizing that the alleys I went into were incredibly clean, with the trash neatly stored, with only a moderate amount of grease, understanding, at last, that I was too disgustingly sated to really have my heart in ratting;

• stumbling into the hotel room where I took some aspirin and collapsed.

THE NEXT DAY, A CABDRIVER reluctantly took me to the mayor's rat control press conference in the rat-infested neighborhood that I'd been to the day before. Television news crews were in an alley by the time I arrived; they were waiting to interview the mayor, John Norquist. They were willing to interview the mayor about rats, though I soon learned that they were undoubtedly interested in the sexual harassment case he was involved in at that time. He had recently admitted to having an affair with a woman on his staff. The woman had charged that the mayor had threatened to withhold block grants to Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods if this woman, who is Hispanic, "refused to heed Mayor Norquist's sexual desires," as one news report put it. Myself, I was merely interested in talking to the mayor about rat control.

While we all waited for the mayor to arrive, Don Schaewe was pointing out all the rat holes in the area and the disparity between trash-filled lawns and cleaned-up lawns for the TV reporters, and then talking to one of the veteran exterminators, Gabriel Perez. Perez reminisced about the time he was working in a neighborhood and a woman invited him in her house to see a rat. She showed him the room with the rat in it. He entered, looked at the rat, and then, before he knew it, the woman locked the door behind him. "She wouldn't let me out until I killed the rat, so I had to kill the rat," he recalled. He also recalled the extensive training that he'd gone through years before, when there was considerably more government funding for rodent control. "We just talked rats eight hours a day," he said. "Sometimes I would leave and my head would be just like rats, rats, rats."

In a while, a police car with its lights on pulled up to the back alley and then a shiny black SUV pulled up behind it. The mayor got out of the SUV. He was tall and charismatic with a warm grin and looked a little like a lithe John Wayne in a business suit. When the conference began, the department of neighborhood services showed off some charts; officials spoke about the rat crackdown in the neighborhood: the plan was to go door-to-door with flyers that alerted people to the neighborhood's "chronic and increasing rat population." The flyers instructed people to clean up their garbage or be fined. Then the mayor spoke:

"Rats eat human food. That's what they eat. So if you don't want rats around, don't feed them. That's the message we're trying to get out." The mayor held up a chart and smiled for the camera. "If people don't like rats, don't feed them. It's as simple as that. People should look in the mirror first."

The mayor turned to the cameras. "Any questions?"

There were no questions.

At this point, the mayor and a couple of dozen volunteers from community organizations began to walk down the streets to hand out flyers. The mayor was all smiles. His bodyguard—a big African American guy, an ex-cop, in a suit—was a few steps behind him, wearing no expression at all. The mayor stopped at the first house on the corner, but it looked as if it were abandoned—until a big, hungry-looking German shepherd came out on the roof of the second floor and began barking ferociously and then a little girl appeared on the front porch.

"Why aren't these children in school?" Rosa Cameron, an alder-woman from the area, said. The alderwoman was among the community group members. She bent over and looked at the girl's skin and thought she might have worms. "This is one of the worst blocks, as far as my district goes," Cameron said. She stood up and began walking again. "You know, anytime you push for the poor, it's a fight.

The mayor, meanwhile, continued to greet the residents. He lingered at the home of a man and a woman whose home was relatively immaculate; he knocked on the doors of people who rented the old, worn-out houses, and the renters were either incredulous or wary. One man came out his front door and continued talking on his phone and watching the mayor as the mayor approached, smiling and sticking out his hand. The man kept his phone to his ear when he shook hands with the mayor. "Hey, Mayor," the man said, "you just come back at night and they'll be running at your feet."

The mayor proceeded to the next house, walking along jauntily, smiling, waving. At the next house, the man and the woman at the door stared at him. "Hi," the mayor said. "Did you get the word?"

"Yeah, well, they're foreclosing in a couple of days. I'm gonna be out," said the man.

"Okay, well, wherever you move, don't feed the rats," the mayor said, before smiling and waving good-bye.

On the way up the front walk to one house, the mayor's bodyguard ran up to the mayor and whispered in his ear just as he was about to knock on the door. The alderwoman noticed something was up. "I don't know what he's going in there for. His bodyguard's getting nervous," she said. After the bodyguard whispered to him, the mayor quickly turned away from the house—it seemed as if the mayor's bodyguard thought he had steered the mayor away from someone who was dangerous.

The mayor visited a few more houses, and in a few minutes the event started to break up.

I was ready to go. Don Schaewe wished me well. "Say hello to Bobby Corrigan for me when you get to Chicago," he said.

I was trying to figure out how I was ever going to find a cab when one of the mayor's aides offered me a ride back to the hotel. I got in the shiny black SUV. The mayor was in the front seat, leaning back, his long legs barely folded in. He appeared relaxed and was making me feel comfortable: hearing that I was from New York City, he said that his brother-in-law, a musician, had played with Tito Puente, the salsa player from the Bronx. The bodyguard drove and he was doing a good job of being quiet and formidable-looking. As we all drove out of the rat-infested neighborhood and into the beautifully renovated downtown, the mayor was going over some of his impressive credentials as an advocate for urban renewal and job creation; he talked about some of the factories he had encouraged to open up in the area; he talked about job creation plans. I was making notes when I made a remark that questioned whether crime was not somehow linked to poverty.

"If you're looking for a poverty angle—well, if people really wanted to get a job they could," the mayor said, and turned around in his seat to look at me. "Do you know why people commit crime?" he asked rhetorically. "I mean, it's not like it's La Boheme and Mimi's in the back room starving. It's fun. It's a thrill. You break into the house, and that's more fun than dipping metal in a chemical in a heat-transfer plant. Instead of working, you go break into a house. It's more fun."

The mayor laughed and turned back to look out the front window of the SUV.

"Until you get caught," he went on.

"Right?" He turned to his bodyguard. "Ask him," he said, motioning to his bodyguard. "He was a cop."

"It's a thrill," the bodyguard said. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw the bodyguard looking at me and smiling.

A few months later, Mayor Norquist settled the sexual harassment charges out of court. He announced that he would not run for a fifth term. Also, Rosa Cameron, the alderwoman I'd been walking around with, pleaded guilty to Tunneling $28,000 worth of federal grants intended for community groups into her campaign fund; she was sentenced to jail time and testified against other city officials.

After I finally got to Chicago and eventually home, I called Don Schaewe and he told me that the rat population in the neighborhood had gone down for a while. He was as optimistic as he could be: "That's a tough neighborhood. You're always gonna have some rats there. We knocked 'em down, but you'll never get rid of them."

RAT CATCHERS OF AMERICA! MICE trappers of all the United States! Men (mostly, though a few women) representing places such as Smithereen Pest Management Services in Evanston, Illinois; and Western Exterminator Co., in Anaheim; California, and Wil-Kil Pest Control in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. People from Varment Guard in Columbus, Ohio, and National Bugmobiles in Victoria, Texas, who, when they get the frenzied phone call, lay out the poisons that the rats eat, inspiring the rats' deaths! Academics who study rats and work with the pest control industry or with public health institutions! Those who attempt to keep this land rodent-free—they would all be at the Rodent Management Summit sponsored by Pest Control Technology magazine and held at the Courtyard Marriott in downtown Chicago and orchestrated by Bobby Corrigan! I was in rat expert heaven. The publisher of Pest Control Technology, who opened the conference, described the event as a gathering of, in his words, "the finest minds in the pest control industry," all gathered in Chicago, that city of which the poet Carl Sandburg has sung:

Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning . . .

I would think of living there, in Chicago, singing with lifted head, except that the city I know is New York—my birth city and, as a result, the only city in which I feel comfortable with lifted head singing. But while there I was in heaven, bathed in the resplendent light of rodent knowledge, meeting, for instance, William Jackson.

Jackson is America's rodent expert emeritus. He got his start working on the first wild-rat studies with Dave Davis in Baltimore, as I have already mentioned. With Davis, Jackson went out into alleys and studied, among other things, cat feces, noting a low amount of rat parts in cat feces, thereby indicating that alley cats and alley rats generally keep their distance. He has helped governments all over the world with their rat problems. When I met Professor Jackson, at the cocktail party on the second night, we talked about the rats that he'd investigated in the Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands in the 1960s—the rats that had survived nuclear testing in the Pacific. He said that the rats had survived the blast by staying deep down in their burrows, and that, upon investigating, the only abnormality that he could find was a change in the structure of the rats' upper jaws, a change that did not seem to hinder the rat in any way. During his presentation, Jackson lectured on rat poisons. He talked about the time after World War II when America was especially chemical-happy—antibiotics had just been used successfully on the battlefield, and DDT had broken a wartime typhus outbreak in Italy. "The attitude there was that chemistry was going to save us, that chemistry was going to take care of all our problems," Jackson said. Warfarin, the first modern anticoagulant rat poison, had been discovered accidentally at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, in 1948, when a chemist noticed that catde died of internal bleeding after eating spoiled sweet clover. The "clover chemical" was soon isolated and fed to laboratory rats, in an effort to find a cure for arthritis. The rats died.

After Jackson described the invention of warfarin, the pest control operators seemed as if they were getting a little bored—my feeling was that they mostly just wanted to know how to get rats. But Jackson pressed on, explaining that Norway rats became resistant to rat poisons in the seventies. The resistance, first noted on a farm in Scotland in 1960, was soon spotted on farms in America and around the country. In 1976, 65 percent of the rats trapped in three neighborhoods in Chicago survived warfarin, and in Wisconsin, there was a report of rats subsisting on warfarin-treated grain. Also in 1976, the Bureau of Pest Control found that 12 percent of the rats in New York City were resistant to the rat poison the city was using, most of the poison-resistant rats residing in East Harlem and the Lower East Side. A new rat-killing anticoagulant was soon developed, but recently, rats in England have become immune to this second generation of poisons. Jackson predicted that the same will happen in the U.S.: "Sooner or later, it's going to come." A few of the people representing companies that sell rodenticides got a little squirmy when Jackson said, "The use of poison is a failure of sanitation."

I had lunch with Stephen Franz, the vector specialist in the division of infectious diseases in the New York State department of public health, who worked on the Urban Rat Control Program in the 1980s. (We had pasta, as he's a vegetarian.) Franz has studied rats in India. He has designed huge city-size rodent-proofing plans; he advised on the rodent-proofing of the palace of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein when the U.S. was an ally of Iraq's. And he once managed a wild Norway rat colony of about six hundred rats in upstate New York, until the Urban Rat Control Program lost its funding and the colony was handed over to scientists who experimented with rat poisons. I listened to him describe high asthma rates in vermin-infested areas, and he talked about being in a building that was so full of cockroaches that you could hear them moving. "You're not supposed to be able to hear cockroaches," he said.

Also at the conference were representatives from Bell Labs, who were selling their latest rodenticides and offering samples of a new kind of snap trap. Some sort of barely hidden rodenticide manufacturing rivalry was going on—I got the feeling that some other rodenticide companies would not have come to the conference if they had known that Bell Labs, one of the conference sponsors, would be there with banners and key chains and pens and buckets of the rival rat poison. In the hotel fitness room, I ran on a treadmill alongside Al Smith, the national sales manager of Lipha Tech, an American division of a giant French pharmaceutical company, whose U.S. headquarters are in Wisconsin, and another time later that spring, I even took him up on an invitation to visit the rodenticide factory, where I sat down with Lipha Tech's plastic bait station, which is the Ferrari of rodenticide bait stations, with all of its rat-appealing corridors and the easy bait application features. I also saw what Smith called "the active ingredient." The active ingredient is what kills the rodents. In this case it is mixed with grains and molded according to various specifications and dyed a kind of aquamarine color that is meant to dissuade humans from eating it (rats don't see color). The active ingredient is kept in fifty-five-gallon-drum-size containers, enough to kill millions and millions of rats, in addition to other things. The active ingredient is mixed into the grain-based bait in a giant machine that looked like something out of an automobile plant. The men operating the machine treated the active ingredient carefully as they walked along the little aquamarine-colored trails of unpoisoned grain. I found the active ingredient to be a little scary; just standing near it made me nervous. On the way out, Al Smith mentioned some of the many clients around the country that used Lipha Tech's poison baits, including a noted animal rights group.

But back in Chicago, I attended presentation after presentation, with titles Hke "Trapping Strategies for Rats and Mice" and "Poison Baiting Strategies." I sat among the pest control operators as they nodded and asked questions about droppings and mating and state regulations of rodenticides and the use of black lights to detect rodent urine. At the breaks I was able to hobnob with exterminators from all over the country, and in so doing, I started to get a feel for the rats of America. I met a man who got rid of rats at the Washington Monument, for instance; he talked about the history of rat infestations in the White House, and the historical controversy over the extent of rats in the White House (a revisionist school has tried to argue lately that the Nixon rats weren't that bad). I talked to a guy from the Pacific Northwest who kept his rat poison in plastic sandwich bags within the bait stations so that rats could still get it but slugs could not, an idea that appealed to another guy from the Southwest who had a similar problem with fire ants. I met a man who had killed rats at Mark Twain's house in Hannibal, Missouri—Les Shinn from Reliable Termite & Pest Control. The exterminator from Hawaii was dressed as if he were from Hawaii and told me that black rats love coconuts. I met a man who killed a lot of rats in a nice hotel in downtown Houston, and I met Bill Martinez of ABC Pest & Lawn in Austin. "I don't know what it's like for these places up North, but you get a dead rat in a wall in Austin in the summer and ooooh-weee! It stinks!"

After the hobnobbing, another presentation commenced, and a representative of a large pest control firm said, "The bad news is rodents are going to win this war against us humans. The good news is there's a lot of business."

A nice thing that happened to me was running into George Ladd, from Bonzai de Bug in New York. It was great to see a familiar face, and he recognized me right away. "Oh, man, it's great to see you, guy!" he said. "Have you talked to Bobby yet?"

ACTUALLY, I HAD ALREADY MET Bobby Corrigan, in a sense. In the interest of fairness, I should mention that I had talked to him once, briefly, just before the conference. I had called him and apparently caught him at a busy time, and he told me that rather than talk to him about rats, all I had to do was read his latest book, which would cover everything I needed to know. Of course, his book is entitled Rodent Control, and when I finally got my hands on a copy, I devoured it. I also read as many of his columns for Pest Control Technology as I could get my hands on, in addition to a story written about him when he was named one of the pest control industry's leaders a few years ago. So I already knew that he was born on Long Island, the son of an Irish laborer. "With eight brothers and sisters we were barely able to put food on the table, but when you are poor, you compensate by hanging out together as a family," he once told a Pest Control Technology reporter. "We realized that we had each other so we looked out for one another." He worked as a supermarket checkout clerk for two years before saving enough money to attend the State University of New York at Farmingdale, where he studied under another well-known rodent expert, Austin Frishman, whose lecture on structural pest control changed Bobby Corrigan's life—he switched his major from oceanography to pest control the next day.

Upon graduation Bobby worked for Fumex, a Long Island pest control firm, and had accounts all over New York City. After three years in the field, he went to Purdue University, in Indiana. Then, after a brief stint with Terminex, he returned to Purdue as vertebrate pest management specialist, a one-year position that turned into a sixteen-year job. He left Purdue to open his own pest control firm when his wife, a molecular entomologist in Purdue's entomology department, moved to Earlham College, a Quaker school, where she studied things like the DNA of finches. Today, they live on a seventy-acre farm in Indiana where they spend their spare time planting species of trees and grasses that are considered native and getting rid of the species that are considered invasive. Aside from studying bugs and animals on his farm, Corrigan enjoys writing poetry.

Reading Bobby Corrigan's book, one immediately gets a sense of why he is the superstar of the rodent control industry. First of all—and most obviously—he knows all about rats. He has studied them with a careful patience. And if he is not an expert on a particular area of rat infestation (rats in sewers, for example) then he is fully aware of the latest research (in the case of rats in sewers, Bruce Colvin's studies, which showed that rats prefer older, brick-lined sewers to newer ones, for nesting purposes). Just Bobby Corrigan's photos alone—of rat burrows, of greasy rat trails along walls and in ceilings, of rats peering nearly unseen from secret places—are enough to impress even the modest student of rats, and they would make a great wildlife calendar if people used photos of dead-grass-covered strips along a broken city sidewalk or of sewer holes or of splotches of rodent feces in calendars. Implicit in his work is the idea that there is no such thing as a monster rat. In Rodent Control, the rat is not evil. The rat is a rat. Of course, Bobby Corrigan understands that when an exterminator suddenly and unexpectedly finds himself face-to-face with a rat, it can be difficult to stay levelheaded. Bobby Corrigan has written, "Frightened you are—composed and clear thinking you are not."

But I believe that the secret to Corrigan's success is that he understands as much about the rat hunters as the rats; he relates to the man in the field, the guy with a can of roach poison on his back, who has been stuck in traffic all day and accidentally frightened the old woman in the upstairs apartment and is now looking down a toilet bowl as something rises up from the hole in the bottom. He writes of such a scene in the section entitled "A Rat in the Toilet Bowl," and he counsels the exterminator to stay calm, but fully understands that he or she may not be able to do so. Specifically, he recommends using a wild-animal loop snare, and placing the animal in a sack to bring it outside, but again, he confesses that he did not use a wild-animal loop snare the first time he saw a rat coming out of a toilet bowl. "As a novice pest control operator encountering a live toilet rat for the first time," he writes, "this author admits to first flushing the toilet and then eventually pinning down and crushing a toilet rat with the wand of a one-gallon compressed-air sprayer. It was neither a pretty scene or a 'professional event,' that's for sure."

Similarly, Bobby Corrigan understands the Sisyphean nature of extermination; while the persistence of rats is good for business in general, it can also be demoralizing, especially when the client has already paid you and expects you to keep coming back until every rat has disappeared. "Most pest management professionals and employees of warehouses and granaries often speak of their occasional encounter with 'smart rats,'" he writes in the chapter entitled "Challenging Rodent Situations." "And writing from experience, it once took this author three weeks of nearly daily effort to take out a single rat from a granary." Elsewhere he states, "In one government building in Washington, D.C., it took nearly one year before an elusive rat finally died of supposedly natural causes (old age). One of its legs was missing a foot, but the leg itself appeared healed over for some time. Perhaps this rat had lost its foot some months ago in a rat trap." Here Corrigan counsels that in certain special cases, where a single cagey rat just won't go away, a man with a rifle and night-vision gear may be the only way to eliminate it: "A sharpshooter quietly lying in wait at night is often used to take out the troublesome rat."

I spotted Bobby Corrigan just as the conference was about to begin, on the first morning. Approximately five feet and nine inches tall with light brown hair on the sides of his head and bald on top, with a mustache and wire-rimmed glasses, with a pen in his pocket and a name tag that said BOBBY, Corrigan was surrounded by rodent control operators who were lining up to speak with him, to shake his hand. His head twitched back and forth from exterminator to exterminator, each one's name instinctively on the tip of his tongue.

At the podium he had the exterminators immediately at ease, even laughing on several occasions. "Sometimes, people ask me, 'Well, how do I know I've got a breeding male?' Well, it's pretty easy to tell if you got a breeding male," he said. He was one with his audience. He didn't act as if he knew more than they did, even though he was the only person there who had photos of himself sitting amidst heaps of chicken dung in a poultry house watching and taking notes on rats as they passed by. His theme was the continuing education of a pest control technician. "When it comes to rodents, I hope all of us can agree, it's a constant learning experience." Everyone nodded his or her head.

"I've been out now for thirty years since I started a pest control route in New York City," he said. By now, some of the pest control operators had stopped taking notes and were just looking up at him in awe. "And I've worked in different environments with the mouse and the rats and whatever you have, and I realize how much we don't know and how much there's still to be discovered."

Bobby Corrigan spoke some more and monitored a panel discussion, but mostly he walked around the room surrounded by pest control technicians, answering hundreds of questions. And each time I approached him, a more aggressive questioner cut me off, so that at the end of his last talk I realized that, even though I'd come all the way from New York to meet Bobby Corrigan, I would go home without spending any one-on-one time with him, though obviously not without more knowledge on the rats of America. It felt unfair, in fact, to take any of Bobby's time away from the many pest control operators who were his longtime fans, his devoted followers. As I was pondering this, I looked over at the notes of the pest control operators sitting on either side of me—one from New Orleans, the other from St. Louis. They had walked away from the long desk to try to speak with Bobby, leaving their notebooks open, their last note-takings exposed. The one on my left said, "I fully agree with Bobby." The other one said, "Bobby was excellent!" The word excellent was underlined several times.