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The Tender Trap: Exterminator Loves the Rat Race

May 04, 1987|VAN GORDON SAUTER | Van Gordon Sauter is a print and broadcast journalist now living in Los Angeles. and

Strolling through the Beverly Center, Jay Woods can be mistaken for a plainclothes detective, tall and lean, neatly dressed in an off-the-rack kind of way, constantly poised and alert. But Woods is not so much a Harry Callahan of "Dirty Harry" as he is an Allan Quartermain, the great white hunter of "King Solomon's Mines." Jay Woods is the contemporary urban hunter, adroit at tracking, sniffing out the trail, respecting the prey and its primeval habits, but always intent on the trophy.

Jay Woods is for Southern California the head man of Bugs Burger Bug Killers, and he has arrived at the Beverly Center not a moment too soon.

Arrived With a Vengeance

All those merchants paying top dollar per square foot for proximity to dedicated shoppers with their little wafers of negotiable plastic are not about to tolerate the temple of merchandising being defiled by marauding rats. And the Beverly Center rats have arrived on television with a vengeance. All those earnest reporters droning on about droppings and greasy trails and outraged Health Department inspectors. Right in the Beverly Center. There were even pictures of someone holding one of the vile creatures up by its tail.

The subliminal message was as subtle as a K mart loudspeaker: Attention all Beverly Center shoppers. Turn back before it's too late. Head for the Westside Pavilion.

Enter the men from Bugs Burger Bug Killers.

"This is big game hunting without the big game," Woods explained. "We go at it like a hunter . . . know the quarry, recognize the signs and track it down."

To Woods, purging the Beverly Center of its blight is just another job, but he takes that job very, very seriously. He speaks with a profound respect for Bugs Burger, who, as the story goes, founded the company with $400 and built it into a $30-million-a-year business, recently sold to Johnson's Wax. At a time when pest control people were selecting less unnerving names for their work, Bugs went down and dirty and called it as it was. He was a bug killer. Now he is an esteemed elder statesman of the trade.

"We are the most expensive firm in pest elimination," Wood declared. "Our purpose is extermination. Not just control."

So he and his colleagues will nightly stalk the Beverly Center, listening and watching, listening and watching, straining to hear that gnawing sound of incisors violating the precincts of good taste, ever vigilant for the dusky trail left on pipes and walls by the greasy rat coat. Methodically and with finality they will return the Beverly Center to conditions acceptable to the most prissy health inspector.

Woods is so good he can smell a rat. One time he went into a restaurant, sat down at a table and it was busman's holiday time. "I got the whiff of a rat and walked right out.

"But, you know, I've got a heavy respect for them. They're very adaptable creatures. All they want to do is eat, get water and make babies."

To Woods, the job is challenging and the pay is good. He finds no stigma to the task, though he admits "this is not the kind of job where you take your work home at night. And it doesn't provide good bar conversation for the single guys."

An accountant by education, the 39-year-old Woods got into the business while running a restaurant in Florida. Someone asked if he would consider Bugs Burger as a place to work. "In those days, if someone said there's a rat or a mouse I'd be the first one on top of the table."

And when they finish the Beverly Center, Woods will move on, perhaps to the most challenging task of his craft, a cruise ship. Now those are hard. Unlike the Beverly Center, the people don't go home at night.

And as Woods, like a frontier marshal, races off to the next place where civilization as we know it is threatened, rest assured that Arthur Tilzer will still be with us to monitor the mean streets. He is the rat expert at the county Department of Health Services. And one can detect in his voice a certain pride that at least his town has a better breed of rats.

"The rat we have problems with in L.A. is the roof rat," he explained. "It's not the Norway rat, which is an Eastern city rat. The Norway rat is more commonly associated with substandard housing. It feeds on a garbage environment. Or waste product."

As roof rats outnumber Norway rats by a 10-1 margin in L.A., there is the unmistakable conclusion that this is not the kind of town to provide a haven for such a loathsome form of vermin.

The roof rat loves to settle into our bushes and trees and vines. It relishes the oranges and grapes and applies. It has adapted and expanded with the urban sprawl, finding a congenial home in our bucolic suburban back yards. The roof rat is very Southern California.

But try and get a TV crew out to document a roof rat in your back yard hibiscus. No way. When the Beverly Center returns to normal, and the greatest threat there to our well being is a stalled escalator, the rats will vanish from the public consciousness. But there is solace in knowing that out there, somewhere, listening and watching, is Woods, while Tilzer assures us that no matter how bad it may seem in L.A. some days, this still isn't the kind of town where a Norway rat would feel at home.

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