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'The Verminators' who deal with pests on campus

STANFORD -- The semi-rural beauty of the Stanford University campus attracts scholars and visitors from around the world, but the natural setting, combined with a steady supply of edible garbage, tends to attract less welcome visitors as well.

Ants, bees, cockroaches, flies, birds, bats, cats, coyotes, possums, raccoons, rodents, squirrels, skunks and snakes all are common pests on the campus. For the outside contractor who handles most vermin incidents, removing two raccoons, 200,000 ants and a 15-foot boa constrictor would be just another day at the office.

While the university's Grounds Department deals with most outdoor pest control issues, problems that arise in and near buildings have been handled for the past decade by Crane Pest Control.

Rich Skalski, who has been at Stanford with Crane for nearly 10 years, has seen (and smelled) it all. Skalski often dresses for success in a long-sleeved fireproof blue safety suit, rubber boots and gloves, a respirator, and head cover.

The biggest problem at Stanford?

"Ants," Skalski and Crane Vice-President Ray Busley agreed in a recent interview.

"In the academic areas," Skalski said, "a lot of faculty and staff eat in their offices, and they usually have a Coke or some sort of soft drink. When they throw the cans in the recycling bins, they usually don't wash them out. The sugar build-up attracts the ants."

An entomologist, Skalski said that the problem is year-round. In the summer, ants move inside to seek water, while in the winter, they seek food. The easiest way to avoid an ant invasion is simple, he said. "Keep food out of their way at all times."

On the subject of skunks, Skalski said he had dealt with skunks "frequently enough that the odor doesn't bother me - in fact, I don't even smell it, but everyone around me does."

Along with possums and raccoons, captured skunks are taken to the Humane Society, although at one time they were relocated in the wild.

"I have three [skunks] in the back of my truck right now," Skalski said.

Small rodents, which are usually just killed, are a common and constant pest on campus, Busley said.

"The Peninsula area as a whole has a lot of roof rats," said Busley. "It's an ideal habitat for them. There are the normal sewer and ground rats, and actually Norwegian rats, too."

The presence of rodents has been minimized at Stanford by a long- term prevention and protection program Crane developed.

"They're now only occasional problems," Busley said. Crane workers continually monitor those areas where rodents generally set up shop.

Skalski was once called in to rid Meyer Library of its bat population. The winged rodents once roosted in the roof and regularly entered the library. Although bats are beneficial in one way - they dine exclusively on insects - their guano can cause a mess and they posed a serious health problem in the library entrance area, Busley said.

Cat food attracts skunks

Feral cats are also well-known animals on the Stanford campus. The Cat Network primarily takes care of the wild cats, most of which were abandoned by student owners. But taking care of the cats has an unwanted side effect, said Ron Parker, the Stanford coordinator of facilities for academic buildings. Food left for them attracts other visitors.

"We'd like to get the word out to people to be conscious about having [cat] feeding sessions next to buildings, which tends to attract other animals like skunks and raccoons that come in for the left-overs."

Busley said, "It's a shame to bring skunks in with food left out overnight, and then have to cart them off to the Humane Society."

Many pests are hardly ever noticed. Coyotes tend to pass quickly through campus, causing little need for concern; many community members don't even know the campus has any coyotes.

Huge American cockroaches, which inhabit the warm underground steam tunnels running through campus, are seldom seen above ground, although "it is very impressive when you see one 2-inches long," Busley said

"There have been some calls for snakes, but mostly pet snakes getting loose," Busley said. Skalski recalled one time when a 15-foot-long boa constrictor escaped from its student owner, and was reported sunning itself on a pool table. When Skalski arrived, the snake had disappeared. The call came almost 10 years ago, and no one knows what ever became of the serpent.

Other unusual jobs included the removal of a baby possum that was found in an employee's desk drawer, and a call for the immediate removal of a - as in one - housefly from an office.

"By the time I got there, it had passed away," Skalski laughed.

"Fairly recently," said Busley, "there was a request for removal of raccoon feces that had built up in an attic for a number of years. Several employees refused to work in the area. So we shoveled.

"There have been things so disgusting . . ."

Environmentally sound techniques

Crane is under four separate contracts to Stanford University: One each for the Medical Center, academic buildings, student housing and food service areas.

Crane employees are stationed at Stanford ready to respond to calls, which can range from 50 to 200 each month in the academic buildings alone. The entire campus can generate as many as 500 to 600 calls a month, Busley said.

The company's techniques and policies helped them win the bid initially and retain the contract over the years, Parker said.

"Our design was initially meant to provide protection for the campus with as little impact on the natural environment as possible," Busley said, "in minimizing pesticide usage, relying on inspections and monitoring programs rather than widespread pesticide applications, for example.

"It was a concern to make sure we choose someone sensitive to those natural aspects of the campus," Parker said. "Additionally, we have all the [hazardous] materials which are regulated by the state passed through our own health and safety people on campus for approval, to make sure we comply with our own codes."

Regulatory groups that Crane must deal with include the state Environmental Protection Agency, the state Agriculture Department, the Structural Pest Control Board, various other state and local health agencies, the U.S. Department of Fish and Game, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration.


This story was written by Elizabeth Bacon, a news writing intern with the Stanford News Service.


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