Philly’s Bedbug Problem

Thanks New York: Your Great Bedbug Plague has come south and invaded our lives (along with the stinkbugs and squirrels). Now only a few good men — and their dogs — stand between Philadelphia and a hostile takeover.

CHASE MUTTLEY LEAPS OUT of his crate in an unmarked white van onto a snowy driveway near Swarthmore, ready for his busy workday. The two-year-old beagle is small for his breed, about 18 pounds, with lively brown eyes and handsome black, white and tan markings. He’s sniffing, wagging, and bounding toward the front door of a rambling Victorian mansion-turned-apartment building. His mission today? To sniff out a suspected case of bedbugs, the scourge of 2011.

[sidebar]At the end of Chase’s leash is his owner/business manager, Marty Overline Jr., a 23-year-old expert in finding and treating the tiny, insidious and discouragingly rampant bugs. As it happens, he was born into the bug trade: He works for Aardvark Pest Management, a thriving Northeast Philly extermination service owned by Marty Overline Sr., and for a man of his tender years, Marty Jr. knows a lot about bugs.

Just inside the massive carved front doors, Sheila*, the building’s manager, looks grim as she greets the tall, slender bug guy contracted to inspect the building every three months, since apartment buildings and dorms are particularly likely to harbor the bloodsuckers. Sheila is looking at Chase with about the same enthusiasm you’d muster up for a face-to-face with Cujo. As apartment operators and hoteliers know (and, unfortunately, as more homeowners are learning), bedbugs are universally deemed to be one of the most persistent pests in nature, making them a laborious and stubborn pain in the ass to remedy. Those who are actually living with an infestation report that it’s one of the most upsetting, palpitation-inducing, psychiatrist-necessitating crises anyone can go through. And to make it worse, getting rid of the bugs costs a fortune, sometimes $1,000 per room.

Chase, however, looks thrilled as he gambols up the staircase to start work—as a hound, he’s naturally curious and quite outgoing — with Marty Jr. behind him, a surprisingly reassuring figure in his jeans, sneakers and gray Polo hoodie. “If they have the bugs, we can get rid of them,” he explains calmly.

He’s got to be one of the hardest-working 23-year-olds in Philly, traveling with his dog hours each day, inspecting or remedying bug problems, looking at million-dollar houses and inexpensive apartments with equal stoicism.

“Pest control,” he announces as he knocks on the first apartment door and is let in by a sleepy-looking woman, after which Chase spends about 45 seconds sniffing every corner of the room: the bed, the table, the bureau and the sofa. The dog’s nose is so sensitive after six months of training at a Florida bedbug-canine school that he can case a room in less than a minute. Thankfully, Chase finds nothing in the mansion’s dozen apartments, but 20 minutes later, over in the complex’s second building, he scrambles under an unmade bed, puts his head down and starts scratching furiously at the gray low-pile carpet. He’s 100 percent focused and digging like crazy, which means he’s caught scent of bedbug pheromones. The dog is rarely wrong, since every morning the Overlines reinforce training with a bedbug in a screened vial, which they hide in their office; Chase is rewarded with treats when he finds it.