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An ode to the cockroach

Despite the loathing we feel for them upon sight, roaches aren't all bad. The little six-legged critters serve an important ecological purpose. After reading the News & Observer story about North Carolina State University scientists seeking more effective ways to exterminate them - I think it involved putting mittens on their hands so they couldn't wash up before supper - I decided to see what would happen if we were to rid the planet of them.

"First of all, you're not going to do that," Dr Joseph Kunkel of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst said with a laugh when I called him. "We've domesticated them, welcomed them into our buildings, and they're not about to leave."

Even if you could wipe them out, he said, you shouldn't want to. "They're part of the food web. Birds eat them," he said. "There are about 3,000 species of cockroaches, and only 10 species are considered pests. They sort of clean up after us messy people. They're omnivores, so they eat plants and animal materials. So, basically, they're nature's garbage men."

Chill, trash collectors. He meant that in a good way.

Despite his obvious admiration for roaches, Kunkel, a biology professor, said, "They are sort of dangerous. They can cause childhood asthma, so in the home, it's good to somehow control them. Every time they shed their cuticles, the bits of cuticles go into the rug. The cuticles contain allergens that, if the children breathe them in continuously, generate an asthmatic response."

Kunkel has obviously made his living in part by studying cockroaches.

Before the government got involved, I made mine by killing them: when the man in charge of spraying my apartment complex in Atlanta for bugs was fixing to retire, he asked if I wanted to take over his business.

Boy, did I! Whether or not his stuff worked was debatable - the no-named complex had more bugs in it than a building the CIA suspects of housing al-Qaeda - but it was a business opportunity I couldn't pass up.

I bought out all of his sprays and potions and his customer list, and began spraying. Everywhere and everything. Killing bugs helped me pay my way through college and kept my pantry stocked with those four-for-a-dollar boxes of macaroni with the orangey powdered cheese. Only years later did I realise that a great business slogan would've been, "The other guys may bury your pests: We're cheaper and we'll Barrymore."

Okay, maybe it wasn't so great.

Besides, after a few months, someone from the city came a knockin' and inquired whether I had a business license.

No. Days later a representative from some government agency charged with protecting the public from numbskulls with deadly chemicals demanded to know if I was qualified to handle toxic sprays and potions. No, again. I still think it was Preston, a schoolmate who lived in the building next door, who ratted me out because I wouldn't spray his place for free.

Anyway, thus ended my career as an exterminator. Last time I was in Atlanta, the apartment complex was still standing. All the tenants are long gone, and the roaches now have the run of the place.

Remember that, NCSU researchers. Despite your best efforts and mine, the cockroaches will be around to dance on all of our graves.


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