Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite
Human and canine exterminators fight nationwide wave of pests
By Elise Kaplan
The unmarked white building on Candelaria holds one bed and two dressers but no personal belongings suggesting a home. It's eerily devoid of picture frames, stuffed animals and clothes. A cooler sits on the beige tile floor, and Patriot Pest Control's newest employee bounds into the room to check it out. Captain Dale, the bedbug-detection dog, has one thing on his mind.
After Albuquerque joined countless U.S. cities in the battle against bedbugs, exterminator David Erik Swanson searched for an extra edge in combatting the problem. He traveled to Southern Star Ranch, a K9 training center in Texas, to undergo a weeklong session attuning himself to Dale's cues. Back at his Albuquerque headquarters, he’s acclimating the black Labrador retriever to his surroundings in preparation for inspections.
Once Dale gets settled into a routine, he'll be 99 percent effective, Swanson says. Dale’s accuracy means the team can target infested areas rather than the whole room. Since bedbugs can live without food for six months, they hide in crevices, cracks and other hard-to-detect places before rising for meal of human blood.
Since bedbugs can live without food for six months, they hide in crevices, cracks and other hard-to-detect places before rising for meal of human blood.
“They can get in the walls and outlets,” says Tobi Camilli, an inspector with Patriot. “We were at a job last week where we found them behind the headboard. For every one that you see, there could be 50 of them.”
Swanson says bedbugs resurfaced in part due to the 1972 ban on DDT, a chemical perviously used in exterminations. Increased international travel also causes epidemics to spread quickly. Infestations hit high-rolling luxury suites with the same regularity as roadside motels.
“We’re not going to be able to stop them from coming from one place to another,” Swanson says. “It’s the transient nature of our society. There's not really a way to completely get rid of bedbugs.”
Albuquerque doesn't regulate methods of bedbug eradication, says Lori Stoller, the city’s consumer health protection manager. But if a tenant feels the landlord has not taken all precautions, he or she can report the case to code enforcement. Deborah Nason, spokesperson for the Planning Department, says the only complaint that's been received so far was unfounded.
Bedbugs can live in any environment that’s above freezing and below 110 degrees. Deana Frye, CEO of Real Pest Solutions, recommends a heightened awareness of anything that can come into contact with the bugs.
“When you travel, keep all your luggage in the bathroom, since bedbugs usually live in the bed or ceiling,” she says. “Once you get home, put everything into the washer and dryer. Anything that you can't wash you should freeze.”
“Last year I did one bedbug treatment per month. Now I do two to three a week.”
Deana Frye, CEO of Real Pest Solutions
Many pest control companies use chemicals to treat the problem, which Frye says harm the environment, children, adults and pets. She maintains that chemicals are also increasingly ineffective. Frye's methods include botanical sprays, steaming and freezing. “Some of the pesticides’ active ingredients have been overused, so they develop an immunity to it,” Frye says. “They won't ever become resistant to heat or cold.”
Albuquerque has not reached national top 10 lists for bedbug infestations, but both Swanson and Frye say they've seen an increase in cases. “Last year I did one bedbug treatment per month. Now I do two to three a week,” Frye says.
The spike in business is what led Patriot Pest Control to add Captain Dale to its employee roster. Swanson says New York and New Jersey require a dog to sniff-check a room before it can be declared bedbug free. That’s part of why he wanted to be the first bedbug dog handler in New Mexico.
Southern Star Ranch schools dogs in tracking narcotics, accelerants, termites, allergens and bedbugs. Trainers choose dogs that play fetch well and have high energy levels, Swanson says. Dogs that are primarily motivated by food instead of play have higher rates of faking a find to get a snack.
Two-year-old Captain Dale is mature enough to follow orders but also young enough to be taught. When he finds the bugs, he sits down and points at them with his nose. When Swanson says “show me again” and he stays put, they know they've found a load.
“It’s kind of spiritual to work with a dog,” Swanson says. “It’s a very cool bonding experience, and it was pretty moving when it finally worked. I’m looking forward to that even more as we go forward. I know his nose. On a good day he’ll pick up those bedbugs across the room.”
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