The Valley’s reputable menace to vermin

David Briggs
Rick Nieslen, a semi-retired wildlife mediator from Woodacre, applies a humane and simple, but expert, method: catch the animal outside, trap it inside, close off outside, and voila—“You have an impenetrable building.”

A late-Autumn heat wave beat down on Woodacre one recent weekday morning as semi-retired pest exterminator Rick Nielsen cracked the seal on a sweating Pepsi bottle, took a swig and began rummaging for his most treasured tool—a mirror—from the back of his black Dodge pickup. Dressed plainly in plaid and grinning helplessly beneath wispy gray facial hair, Rick, 58, exhibited few, if any, of the iron attributes that would assumedly be possessed by the most revered animal abatement expert in the San Geronimo Valley.

“To get the rats-eye view,” he explained, hoisting the reflective fragment into the air and inadvertently divulging the bulk of his industry secrets—that, to catch an animal, you must learn to think like one.

Rick, or Rick the Rat Catcher, as he is known professionally and in many word-of-mouth community circuits, is officially a “wildlife mediator.” He rids houses and properties of the usual list of vermin—“raccoons, skunks, bats, stuff like that.” Basically anything except moles and gophers, which are too time and labor intensive. “You gotta be there for hours and see the ground move,” he said. “Or else you gotta put poisons in , and I’d just as soon not use poisons.”

Technically, he learned to do all of this about 12 years ago, while working his way through a biology degree. Realistically, though, it started much earlier than that, as a boy growing up not far from where he now lives, in Forest Knolls, with his wife, Andrea, and, until last month, college-aged daughter, Erika Rose.

“I was a lucky kid,” Rick said. “I got to grow up in Mill Valley—in the Alto district—and I had miles and miles of hills with no houses on them. And friends and I, we used to go up to Horse Hill and bring a little sugar with us and attract a horse, jump on his back and just go riding for hours.”

He was fascinated with biology and wildlife, and as a Boy Scout learned to track deer and other animals, casting their prints in plaster of Paris and cluttering his bedroom with the molds. “Even as a kid I think it was easier for me to talk to the neighbors’ dog than to the neighbors,” he said.

After some time in college Rick took a job trucking cross-country. He met his wife a few years later, and realized not long after that months at a time on the road would be too much for either of them to handle. “It got to the point where I’d come home and she would have the wanted ads open with a bunch of openings circled,” he said.

That led to a decade of heavy underground construction before a severe shoulder injury put Rick on disability and in search of new endeavors. He decided to go back to school, and began working part time at a pest abatement company in San Rafael to help pay his tuition. “[My boss] eventually found out I lived in West Marin, and said, ‘I hate going out there. If you want you can have anything from San Rafael west,’” Rick said. “So with his permission that’s what I did.”

In the years since, Rick has achieved something akin to a cult following. “I want to be first in line for a Rick the Rat Catcher t-shirt,” said Susan Shannon, a local resident who has been dealing with annual rat infestations for the past 10 years. “There are these decorative holes in the eaves and [the rats] would nest in there and look down at you like they were in little apartments.” Shannon finally availed herself of Rick’s services this summer, and was surprised less by his efficiency and success than by his enthusiasm.

“Rick talked about [the rats] as though they were a football team that he was strategizing against,” she said.

“Rick is awesome,” said Hillary Jones, a nurse practitioner who lives in Woodacre.  She hired Rick five years ago because he didn’t use rodenticides, which can infect animals higher up on the food chain. “Never in my life would I use a normal exterminator,” she said. “But Rick does it in the best way.”

And, according to Rick, that way is relatively simple. “Basically, you catch them outside, you trap them inside, you close off outside, and pretty soon you’ll have an impenetrable building,” he said.

The routine goes something like this: Rick circles a house, angling a mirror to check every crevice where a rodent can chew, claw or worm its way in. Using wire mesh he then closes off all potential entrances except one, and sets a series of traps baited with peanut butter. He then checks those traps daily for ten days, or until the bites become less frequent. Then he closes off any remaining holes, leaving the traps inside for another couple of days to kill any stragglers. “The intent of the exercise isn’t to catch a bunch of rats,” he said. “It’s just to clean the house out.”

For larger rodents, the protocol is merely to provide a way out. “What I’ll do is I’ll close off all the access that the animal has except one, and in that one I’ll put a one-way door, which is basically a piece of plywood with a cat door cut in it and springs,” Rick said. “I prop it open, the animal goes out, it slams shut behind it, done deal.”

That strategy doesn’t work with rats and mice because, unlike other pests, rats and mice remember a house in which they’ve previously been and are likely to return. “The fact is the rats that are in your house already have a memory of it. So if one of the females has a litter, the next time she’s pregnant she’s going to want to come back there, and so are her kids,” he said. “So it starts this whole cycle.”

There are a number of things that homeowners can—but often don’t—do to prevent or lessen the number of pests on their property, and Rick is quick to divulge those. For example, the more shelter and food available, the higher the attraction for rats. “It’s a direct mathematical proportion,” he said. “I use the cake analogy: they don’t need a cake. They’ll eat the egg, they’ll eat the flour, they’ll eat the sugar. Anything that’s edible—fruit trees, nuts, you name it.

And another thing: “A lot of people get holes in their yards from rats, and when they see these holes they think they have to seal it off with cement. The thing is, yeah, they can’t dig through concrete but they can dig next to it and once they’re under it they have a roof that won’t collapse,” he said. Instead, use beach sand to fill the holes and the rats won’t be able to tunnel through because it keeps collapsing on their work.

As for gophers, Rick said the thing to do is “go out at sun-down with your glass of wine, sit very still and wait for the ground to move. Watch the holes. And then get a flat shovel and … whip … it’s la guillotine—nothing humane about it, but it’s more humane than the using gas or something like that.”

Despite the esteem of his followers, those closer to home are less likely to be as open-eared to Rick’s daily exploits. “Let’s just say my daughter has no interest in the family business. She’s made that much clear,” he said. “We had some bunnies once and that was about as far as she got into the animal kingdom.”