A Dogged Pursuit of Bedbugs
By Bob Drogin
There’s high demand for dogs that are trained to track down the tiny, bloodsucking parasites, which have invaded cities in the last four years.
Reporting from Asbury Park, N.J. – Sara pulled on her leash, sniffing up one side of a cluttered bedroom and snuffling down the other. The black Labrador retriever suddenly sat beside an armchair.
Rich Wilbert, her handler, flipped the chair over and poked at the stuffing and seams. He spotted pin-sized drops of human blood — clear signs of an infestation of bed bugs in the small apartment.
“Good girl, Sara,” Wilbert said. He fed her a few treats from a bag as a co-worker made a note to treat the room with insecticide. Sara went back to searching for Cimex lectularius, as she does six days a week.
A working dog’s life is not easy. Some canines gain glory by sniffing out bombs, drugs or land mines, but most do less glamorous labor. Beagles hunt home-munching termites, terriers track toxic fumes from Chinese drywall, and collies chase Canada geese off golf courses.
Bed bugs are the latest dirty job. Largely eradicated in the United States after World War II, the tiny, bloodsucking parasites have invaded city after city in the last four years, leaving painful skin welts and pricey pest control bills from Boston to San Francisco.
One result: Many pest control companies — especially those that use bed bug detection dogs — are riding high despite the economic recession.
They typically charge $500 to $1,000 to treat a small apartment or office. That buys a trained dog to detect the reddish-brown vermin, heavy applications of sprayed steam and chemicals to kill the insects and their eggs, and a follow-up visit with the dog to make certain the nasty nocturnal varmints are really gone.
Bed bugs hide during the day in wall cracks, behind light switches, or in other dark places. But the dogs sniff along baseboards, beds and furniture for the pheromones, the faint chemical odor that the insects emit to signal one another, and then alert the handler of an enemy invasion.
At Action Termite and Pest Control, based in Toms River, N.J., general manager John Russell said his business has grown by 30% this year thanks to Sara, Rex and Cassie, his three dogs. He is adding to his 46-member staff and plans to buy a fourth dog.
“The phone has been ringing off the hook,” he said. “We used to get maybe one or two calls a year. Now we get 10 to 15 a day.”
Among the recent jobs: an $80,000 contract to eradicate bed bugs from four apartment blocks owned by the Atlantic City Housing Authority. His dogs also sniffed their way through two office towers in mid-Manhattan and a luxury hotel in Philadelphia.
On a recent sunny morning at Laurel House in Asbury Park, a once-grand seaside resort, Sara went room to room in a former boarding
house now used to house 28 homeless people a block or so from the boardwalk.
“I’ve done public housing for 20 years and never heard of bed bugs until four years ago,” Steve Heisman, who heads the social service
agency that runs the facility, said as he followed Sara. “Now they’re public enemy No. 1.”
Heisman requires residents to remove pictures from their walls, and to keep their clothes and clutter to a minimum to eliminate places
where bugs can hide. But he still calls exterminators back “three times a year, and that’s if I’m lucky” for $10,000 treatments.
That afternoon, Sara was about 50 miles north in a working-class neighborhood of Jersey City. Wilbert took her to see whether bed bugs
had returned to a recently treated, three-story apartment building. Out back, someone has painted “Bedbug!” in red on a discarded mattress
“We had to throw everything out,” said Saroj Bala, one of the tenants. “It was an utter nightmare. I was being bitten every night.”
She anxiously watched as Sara sniffed through her living room and bedroom. Bala smiled with relief when the dog left without finding any
“Wonderful,” she said.
October 21, 2009