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L.A. County Fair Is Host to Some Hired Guns: Marauding 'Killer' Snails

September 28, 1989|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

Some people go to the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona to see pigs wallowing in sawdust or to ride the Giant Slide or to buy the latest slice-and-dice contraption or to admire the prize-winning decorated cakes.

But some go for the snails, says Raymond Harrie. "I've heard a lot of people say they wouldn't come if it wasn't for the snails," says Harrie, a slight man with stringy blond hair and bloodshot blue eyes that make him look as if he's been spending a lot of time in a swimming pool.

Harrie, 34, a resident of Apple Valley, has about a quarter of a million of them over in the commercial part of Flowers and Garden, right there among the bonsai trees and miracle plant food and wind chimes and convertible hammocks being hawked by tradesmen. Seed your yard with Harrie's killers, he suggests, and they'll blow away those pest snails that have been eating your dahlias.

"It's the tough new snail on the block," says Harrie, who brims with good-natured snail humor.

Browsers in the exhibit hall see Harrie's sign, complete with blow-ups of killer snail throttling pest snail, and they move apprehensively toward the booth, ready to stop short if some leashed gastropod mollusk the size of a Labrador retriever, antennae quivering, should suddenly dart out from under the table.

"What do the killers eat?" asks one browser.

"Watch those fingers," says Harrie mischievously. "Don't fall asleep in the garden."

Take away the livestock exhibits and the home arts, and the County Fair is a lot like a big medicine show, with pitchmen giving demonstrations of scroll saws or synthetic chamois cloths or signing up passers-by for hot tub drawings and encyclopedia raffles. The fair, snake oil salesmen and all, runs through Oct. 1.

In the time-honored tradition of the medicine show, there's often an element of exaggeration to those enticing sales pitches.

One weekday last week, for example, hawkers were selling wood lathing machines ("They'll make any man happy"), cushions with battery-operated "fingers" (offering "the secrets of Shiatsu, a 1,000-year-old Japanese tradition in finger pressure massage"), amazing buffing rags and vegetable slicers that can make scalloped potatoes in 10 seconds flat.

At first sight, Harrie's claims about his killers seem a little exaggerated, too. The snails look a lot like little sea mollusks. Dead ones.

Harrie, who runs a snail-growing company called Bio-Con Systems, keeps them in little plastic containers, like cottage cheese vats, which go for $20 apiece. There are 100 to a container, thin, elongated creatures that don't seem to be moving at all.

"It's the wrong time of day," says Harrie blithely.

In truth, he says, compared to his little Rumina decollata snails, the garden variety pest snail is a world-traveling marauder, ranging freely across gardens and yards, stopping for a meal or two of marigold or lettuce before moving on in a perpetual journey of destruction. The Genghis Khan of the garden.

But in a good year, the killer snail, a burrower who was probably introduced to California many years ago on citrus trees imported from North Africa, may travel 60 feet. That's the maximum.

"What he does is consistent with what you're trying to do in your yard," Harrie contends.

In other words, the little crawlers don't climb all over your walls and windows, leaving slime trails on your driveway or destroying your plants, like the pest snails. But they do eat dead leaves and help to aerate the soil, like earthworms.

"He's a composter," says Harrie.

Not so the marauders (Helix aspersa). They proliferate in slimy concentrations of 2 million per acre, Harrie says, and they love irrigated freeway medians and shoulders. In San Bernardino County, before the county introduced killers like Harrie's 15 years ago, there were so many pest snails that they created slick spots on freeways.

"People were sliding into bridge pilings," says Harrie, an agricultural biologist who works full time for the San Bernardino County Department of Agriculture.

Caltrans officials confirm that Decollata snails have been used for at least seven or eight years to stop pest snails. "The main problem was that the pests were detrimental to plants," says Paul Drew, area superintendent for Caltrans' Los Angeles metropolitan district.

"They're not a problem any more," added Drew, a 22-year veteran of Caltrans who used to work as a landscape specialist. "Eight years ago, there was a big anticipation (of pest snail proliferation). Then we went into Decollata. " No more Helix aspersa.

And no chemicals were spread in the process, Drew said: "It's biological control."

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