Sleeping With the Enemy
My fascination with bugs and other creepy crawly things started back in the second grade. When I was six, I woke up one morning with a series of painful red bumps all over my body. As I had conquered chicken pox the year before, my mother rushed me to the doctor where I was diagnosed with scabies. I was calm
about the verdict until I got home and looked up the condition in the encyclopedia.
The horror set in when I saw the photo. WHAT? There were disgusting microscopic creatures inside my body eating my skin? The scabies went away, but my obsession with parasites has not. Like a bad accident you can’t look
away from, worms, fleas, lice, and the like simultaneously deeply fascinate and completely disgust me.
So when I heard about the bedbug phenomenon that’s hit San Francisco I was intrigued. I was even more excited when I learned that dogs are being used to hunt down infestations. I definitely needed to see the action with my own eyes.
Recently, media attention surrounding bedbugs here in SF has been all over the place. I’ve seen articles claiming that we have the fastest growing epidemic in the country, while we don’t even make the Centers for Disease Control’s top 50 list. To get some perspective, I called local branches of nationwide extermination companies. They all tell me the same story: Yes, bedbug calls have definitely increased in SF but it’s more awareness than actual outbreaks that are behind these heightened numbers. Furthermore, unless you are in the Tenderloin (in which case you’re screwed) SF is an exceptionally infestation-free city. Ready to see for myself I contacted Scent Tek, the local authority on canine bedbug hunters. Scent Tek is not an extermination company, but a detection service with the sole purpose of locating bedbugs by using scent dogs. Since the company does not profit from the extermination, it can advise without bias and dedicate itself to locating infestations. Without hounds the scope of the infestation is nearly impossible to gauge, often leading to overly toxic, ineffective, and costly services. The firm is co-owned by two brothers, Kevin and Brent Youngblood (an amazingly appropriate name for people who hunt bloodsucking vermin). They have a team of four handlers and five dogs that serve the greater Bay Area. When I contact Scent Tek to see if I can accompany one of them on a job, I speak with Kevin who makes parasite hunting sound as fun as a night of whiskey and dice. We arrange to meet at an upcoming inspection in North Beach.
It’s an extremely foggy morning when I arrive at the address. Kevin is waiting for me and is just as enthusiastic in person as he is on the phone. After introducing me to his brother Brent, who will be inspecting three units today, I meet Duncan the Scottie dog and Curly an Australian shepherd that Brent handles. They then give me all four of their cards. That’s right, Duncan and Curly have
their own business cards complete with black-and-white portraits. I find out that Scent Tek works only with rescued dogs, and has the firm belief that every dog can be trained to be a “Sherlock Hound.” The brothers choose their dogs from the SPCA, Humane Society, Animal Rescue Foundation, and other dog rescue organizations. Duncan was a breeder dog that lived his entire life in a crate
before Kevin spent top dollar to give him a better home. You see, the dogs don’t just work with the company, they become family members and live with the trainers just as any pet would. Once a dog is selected, it is flown to the Florida Canine Academy where it goes through 300+ hours of training before becoming an official bedbug hunter.
I am starting to feel like I’m on a private-eye mission, especially when Kevin creates a false identity for me – no one wants their bedbug infestation written about for all of SF to read.
We decide that I’m a Scent Tek in training. In our first apartment we meet a young doctor who is thrilled to watch our little scout in action. Kevin releases Duncan. As he roams throughout the rooms, Kevin explains what’s happening. Duncan is sniffing for an odor cloud that is about the size of a backpack. Bedbugs produce this smell at all stages of their life cycle, so Duncan will be able to sniff out the offenders using scent alone. If and when he does detect such a cloud, he’ll instantly sit down and wag his tail. The truth is that Duncan can smell bugs within seconds of entering a room, but Kevin makes a show of the hunt – to be absolutely sure the check is complete, but also to give the client a bit of a show.
Watching Duncan work is completely fascinating. He is so calm and methodical; you can tell this is not so much work as second nature. All the dogs are trained with a food-based reward, and although I am allowed to give Duncan a treat for being adorable, only Kevin can do so if Duncan finds a little demon.
Once the hallway has been checked we head to the bedroom. Bedbugs are most likely found here, especially because they feed between the hours of 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. where the “hosts” generally are during this time. As Kevin shares this fact I think about how horribly insulting the term “host” is. It’s as if we sent invites, including our blood type and diet, cordially requesting the bedbugs’ presence in our homes.
At this point our interested tenant starts asking questions. He has bedbug cases coming through his hospital all the time and would love to learn more.
The only problem is that at this point he turns to me with his questions. Do bedbugs feed every day? How many eggs can one female lay? How big are the eggs?
I look at Kevin struggling to keep my cover but we both know we’re busted. Thankfully, Mr. MD takes the news of my true identity well, and while I’m embarassed that my disguise failed, I’m happy to learn the answers to these inquiries. It turns out that bedbug eggs are only 1mm large and hatch in 7–10 days. One adult female is capable of laying as many as 500 eggs
in her lifetime (about one year), which is why infestations run rampant. On top of that, adult bedbugs can live for up to a year without a food source. In the meantime, Duncan has finished checking the living room and we can now be sure that this unit is clear. And while it is possible for infestations to move from one apartment to another, it is highly unlikely. So for now our tenant is told to sleep easy.
Downstairs we join Brent and Curly to see what they’ve found. It turns out that they did locate some little beasts and even captured a few as evidence. The person whose bed they were in didn’t have any bites, so without the help of Curly, the bugs could have partied down in that apartment indefinitely. Most bedbug bites will create itchy red welts, but some people are immune so they can go months without showing symptoms. Now that the inspection is over, Scent Tek will create an extermination recommendation for the buildings’ owner.
With two units of the four having mild infestations Brent and Kevin will most likely recommend a heat treatment process that involves getting the units up to 130 degrees for four hours. In this time the waxy substance that holds the bedbugs’ bodies together simply falls apart, which I think is freaking awesome! Like in a sci-fi movie, these suckers have their limbs melt away and end up in a puddle of their own goop. If the infestation is smaller, treating areas with steam will have the same effect. Scent Tek rarely, if ever, recommends chemical treatment, which is both dangerous to tenants and less effective in eradicating the infestation.
Outside playing with Curly and Duncan, I get to ask my final question: Is there hope for us to live in a bedbug-free world or does city life mean we are doomed to be eaten alive? The brothers agree that more cases are being treated than ever before; however, the idea of conquering the problem is unimaginable “Bottom line, there’s always another host.” Before I head out, Duncan and Curly give me a once over guaranteeing that at least for now that host isn’t me.
If you are worried about bedbugs in your home or office, give Scent Tek a call. A one bedroom apartment inspection costs $175, three bedroom units come in at $250, and four plus bedroom homes are reasonably priced at $325. Mention this article and you’ll receive a 10% discount on all services.