I'm looking across the table and it occurs to me that you don't have a steaming mound of outrage to go with your French toast and eggs. I'm here to help.
It begins last Thursday when animal rescue stud Rich Burton got a call from a rattled older woman with a problem. At first glance, it appears her problem is raccoons. But pay attention and you'll see that wildlife creatures are probably the least of her worries.
"The woman, who lives in Leeds, begins by telling me that she does not have an animal problem, or, as she put it, doesn’t have an animal problem anymore," Burton says.
"She proceeds to tell me that she had a raccoon problem and that a company charged her $1,100 to set a trap. I kind of cut her off mid-sentence and had her repeat the price to make sure that I heard it right. Yup, $1,100. She then goes on to tell me that they did not catch the raccoon, but was told she was safe because the man from the company put something in the attic that will keep them away forever. I cut her off by letting her know that things like that do not exist."
OK, that's bad. Just about everyone I talk to insists it doesn't cost anywhere near that much money to keep a raccoon out of a garage. But is it enough for you to get frothing mad about? I don't think so. If only there was more human treachery to really stick to your ribs.
"She proceeds to tell me that after the man took his traps down he proceeded to tell her that his company will come in and clean up the mess in the attic for $36,000," Burton continues. "Not three thousand, six hundred? I asked the woman. No, Thirty-Six Thousand Dollars!"
OK, now your bacon is starting to sizzle. Now we're talking about a pest control company that charged an old woman more than a thousand dollars for a raccoon deterrent system and which wants an additional $36K of her life savings to clean her attic.
I know how you are. You want to see the good in everyone. But Mike, you say, spraying bits of egg right into my face. Maybe the attic really needs that much work. Maybe it's really, really nasty and she could die.
"Mildred (not her real name) said the man told her that the attic was disease-ridden and very dangerous and that his company was going to send in trained people in hazmat suits and breathing tanks to tackle the problem," Burton explains. "I asked Mildred if the man said words like roundworm, airborne pathogens, histoplasmosis, and Mildred said that he did. She went on to tell me how the man said that it was very dangerous up in the attic with all the airborne stuff and that she needed it done. Mildred then started to choke up a bit and I started to get pissed."
Here, Burton could have just billed the woman $5,000 for the consultation and went on his way. Instead, he went to her house to take a look at the kind of animal mess that requires $36,000 worth of cleanup.
"The house was old," he says. "Eighteen-forties old, I find out from Mildred. Mildred introduces herself to me and I immediately feel the anger toward this situation swelling inside of me. Mildred is retirement-age and has back problems."
The place is overgrown with trees and there are breaks in the roofline, Burton says. There is plenty of rotten wood and cracks where animals can enter. Mildred leads him through a maze of cluttered rooms and Burton notes open windows and cracks "big enough for a cow to fly through."
Finally, they enter a garage-style barn that's crammed full of antiques and old junk. Mildred leads him up the stairs to the second floor.
"Mildred leads me across the very — and I mean very — weak floor to a piece of plywood that was screwed to a section of wall with a hatch cut into the center of the quarter-inch plywood," Burton says. "Not a door, a hatch. The center of this 3-foot by 6-foot triangular piece of plywood had been removed and replaced. Only this time the center piece had two hinges and a cabinet lock, hence the hatch."
There's your $1,100 anti-vermin technology: $15 worth of plywood and the rest, presumably, labor.
Hold on to your pancakes, reader. This is where the beasts are revealed.
"I begin to open the hatch and Mildred asks, very shakily, I might add, 'Should I go before you open that?' I tell her that she is perfectly safe and that there is nothing in her attic that is big enough to get by me and even if an animal did get by me, it would be to escape, not attack.
"Mildred proceeds to tell me that when the ... guy came to look in the attic, he looked into the now-boarded-up hole and said that there was something big looking at him and she needed to leave quickly for her own safety. I am sure that I stood there for a moment with a mad scowl on my face.
"In my less than PC Aroostook County-boy way of expressing myself, I proceeded to tell Mildred that unless I missed a giant pile of bear crap on the way up the stairs, she is totally safe. I then tell her that the guy used a scare tactic on her to ensure that she hired him. She looked at me with a very sad face and stated, in that sort of asking way, that she had been taken. All I could do was look at her and tell her that it did appear that way."
But surely, you're thinking. Surely there is some form of health hazard in the attic that warrants tens of thousands of dollars worth of work. That's why Burton is there. To investigate conditions on that upper floor.
I've seen Burton remove cats from houses where cat waste had rotted the floors and which overflowed tubs. I've seen him work in places from which others had run gagging, never to return. Burton knows unhealthy conditions like nobody else.
Into the lair of the beast he went.
"The first thing I see is 17 porcupine droppings. Yes, I counted them. A porcupine can drop 17 pellets in a single squeeze so this was of no concern, not to mention that only eight were fresh," he says.
"Another couple of feet and I find my first pile of raccoon poop. It was a good-size pile and he or she had berries for lunch. Well, maybe berries. It is hard to tell when the poop is covered in dust, mummified and hard as a rock. I figure that the raccoon let that load go plop on the attic boards about the same time my son went plop into this world 13 years ago. This raccoon dung was dangerous all right; if you were wearing flip-flops you could have broken a toe on it. Other than that, harmless."
Burton continues to tour the space. A few signs of squirrels, an area that could use insulation, and not much else. The whole mess, he insists, could be cleaned up with a broom and a simple dust mask. No need for spaceman-looking biohazard suits, as far as he could see.
"I tell Mildred that I have crawled through, laid on and had raccoon feces on me countless times in the many years that I have been doing this and I am still here, walking and talking. I explain about the many scary terms that can be used to frighten people into spending boatloads of money on problems that do not exist," Burton says.
"Don’t get me wrong, there are many diseases associated with animals and their excrement and you can in the right circumstances catch them. However, airborne pathogens and viruses from raccoon feces is not something I would lose sleep over. If you pick it up and play with it like silly putty, you might get a nasty case of ringworm, but other than that, the odds of you catching a life-threatening disease from raccoon droppings is pretty slim."
It's a judgment call, I guess. Maybe you believe Mildred should have cleaned out her bank account to pay for the work, just for peace of mind. However, if you've ever been told by an auto mechanic that you need $2,000 worth of work, only to find out that all you needed was air in the tires and a new air freshener, you know how this bit works. Mildred probably doesn't need $36,000 worth of cleanup any more than she needed an $1,100 piece of wood.
As far as we know, Mildred never dragged out her checkbook. Then again, there's always the possibility that the vermin guy went back and fear got the better of her. At any rate, we know she didn't have to mortgage her house or sell a kidney to pay for Burton's second opinion.
"With a sigh of relief Mildred asks me how much she owes me. I tell her $35,999 because I am always cheaper than the other guy. Then I quickly give her my just-kidding grin and tell her that she owes me nothing," Burton says.
"Normally I do charge for inspections, but this time, not a chance."
Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer who has run gagging, never to return, from cat waste that overflowed tubs. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.