"It's like a snap, crackle, and pop."
Tim TenBrink is describing the noise made by maggots eating the carcass of a dead raccoon. Frequently, he has to collect these from the crawl spaces under people's houses, and he's developed a strategy to drown out the sound of their feast.
"I usually hum as I get closer, so I don't have to hear it," he says. "The smell is also horrible. It's a sick, sweet smell—sweet but disgusting. I try to imagine I'm somewhere else."
TenBrink has run Critter Control in Portland for 10 years. He moved here from Michigan, after deciding he didn't want to teach high school science there any more because the job wasn't as fulfilling as he'd expected. So he got a part-time job in Portland doing pest control, and stayed. Now his company employs six people and has been getting busier each year.
"I never get the Monday blues these days, not like when I was teaching," he says. "I'm always raring to go after the weekend's over."
Certainly, it's easier to measure success in his newer line of work. In 2006, TenBrink pulled 80 rats from under one house in a month. Compare that to a bunch of lukewarm SAT scores and I can understand his motivation for changing careers. These days he "does" rats, possums, raccoons, squirrels, birds, mice, and skunks.
Sometimes, people want the animals caught in cage traps so they can take them to the vet to be euthanized. One woman even had a change of heart after TenBrink caught a raccoon in a cage trap for her—paying him $50 to let it go, instead of taking it back to the Critter Control office, where a homely carbon dioxide gas box waits. TenBrink's favorite trapping method for rats, however, is the old-fashioned cartoonish rattrap, smeared with a glob of peanut butter. It's quick but effective, if a little gruesome to look at.
Last week I joined TenBrink in the crawl space under the same house in Southeast, near Hawthorne and 30th. The owner had asked us to park the van round the corner, so her neighbors didn't know what we were up to: a follow-up rat catch. We wore blue work suits and respiratory masks, along with white plastic gloves. TenBrink told me to be careful not to set off any of the traps by accident.
"When I came here in 2006 they were just running around the yard in broad daylight," he says. "It's the only place I can ever say that was truly infested. It was shocking. The floor was giving way under my feet because there were so many rat burrows."
The owner of the house keeps chickens and pigeons, and the feed grain was attracting the rats. TenBrink would lay 12 traps each evening and return the next day to find them all full. Or at least, half full.
"Rats cannibalize each other, so by the time we came around, they'd usually be half-eaten," he says. "We knew the population was dwindling when we started finding whole rats still in the traps."
There's no link between house prices and rat attractiveness, either. The area we're in, I would estimate, plays host to houses worth over $400,000, and the best spots for rats, TenBrink says, are the West Hills and Lake Oswego.
This time, it seems, TenBrink's aggressive trapping in 2006 has been reasonably effective in attacking the population. We catch one mouse, and only one enormous rat, measuring nine inches from nose to butt, and 16 inches from nose to tail. He weighs two pounds and is about four-inches tall. The trap, actually, couldn't hold him, and he died a couple of feet away.
"I'd guess this is the dominant male," said TenBrink, who whistled merrily as he bagged him, and took him back to the office.