Nov. 01, 2009
The air is thick with tension and disturbed droppings. I'm balancing five feet up, in total darkness, on steel crossbeams caked with layers of bird poop.
Today, I'm working for Nevada Pigeon Control, inside the enclosure behind a giant rooftop neon sign. Above me, dirty wings violently flap against my eyelashes. Below me, NPC owner Nephi Oliva yells "Get it!" and "Don't be a baby!"
At least Tippi Hedren got an Alfred Hitchcock movie out of her nightmare work environment.
The potential avian flu carrier above me is one of 30 unwanted guests of an off-Strip hotel Oliva asked us not to name (because he wants to retain it as a client). Oliva and his seven employees -- whom he pays $18.50 per hour -- have removed pigeons for valley businesses and homeowners associations since March. Instead of killing as many as possible -- a typical pest-control MO -- NPC keeps the healthiest 95 percent of its victims as jailbirds.
"That's my pigeon!" Oliva screams. "Grab it!"
There's a band around its right leg, I see it in my night-vision goggles. This means it escaped NPC's North Las Vegas sanctuary after being captured in an earlier cleanup. (Three months ago, 150 birds called this roof home.) Recapture is essential, because this pigeon knows NPC's techniques and can teach its friends how to elude them.
"You wouldn't believe how smart they can be," Oliva says.
As a kid in San Diego, Oliva, 36, wanted to be a veterinarian. He transformed his mom's backyard into a triage for every wounded animal in the neighborhood: pelicans, opossums, snakes, lizards, hamsters, rabbits.
"She wasn't too happy about that," he said.
Life led Oliva down different career paths: concert promoter, Christian music songwriter and, most recently, bounty hunter. In 2001, his original calling called him back, in the form of tiny footsteps on his own roof.
"I couldn't concentrate," he says. "They were making all this noise."
Oliva prefers chasing pigeons to humans.
"I don't have to deal with as much paperwork," he said. "And humans crap on you way more."
Oliva is feuding with the city of North Las Vegas, which shut down NPC's sanctuary in September, claiming noncompliance with zoning and health laws. Oliva vows to reopen it in another valley location. Until then, he hides what he calls his expanding collection of 400 "fugitives" in a secret, mobile sanctuary.
"What's the alternative -- somebody comes out here with a bunch of poison and they all suffer?" he asks.
Oliva is not nearly as sensitive to the feelings of apprehensive reporters. Earlier today, he stuck a pellet rifle in my hands and exercised humiliation to get the trigger squeezed.
"What's the point of coming out here to do a damn story if you won't even do your job?" he inquired loudly.
Removing entire flocks is only possible, Oliva explained, after removing the alpha male. That way, the rest of the birds have no leader to signal when to fly off. NPC employees pick off alpha males during the day; returning at night to capture the rest -- using nets and their bare hands -- while they sleep. They wear black uniforms, Oliva explains, to reduce the risk of detection.
"Shoot this one bird," Oliva said, pointing out the alpha male by his higher relative perch, "and you'll be saving hundreds of others."
I used to loathe what we New Yorkers call "flying rats" -- especially when they landed on the outside of my window air conditioner to announce that once again, amazingly, the sun had risen. Then one morning, I saw the nest. For two months, I watched the eggs hatch, followed by mama bird's struggle to feed a hungry brood of three with Upper East Side garbage.
I couldn't shoot, of course. And this was true even after Oliva noted, while shaking his head, that I needed to remove the safety latch and, then, the cover from my scope.
The gun did go off, due to mounting peer pressure, but I aimed it off to the left. No animals were harmed by me during the making of this article. (However, there may be a party animal somewhere who is walking funny after his latest stroll along the Las Vegas Strip.)
"It's within grabbing distance!" Oliva yells back behind the neon sign.
Grabbing distance, it turns out, is a subjective term. I can probably reach the pigeon, but only at the risk of losing my balance and greeting, on the trip downward, two or three steel crossbeams with my unprotected head.
The attempt I make is better described as a shoo than a grab. The banded pigeon takes off, like a screaming line drive, below me.
Luckily, a nimbler and more intelligent NPC employee waits there.
"Good girl!" Oliva tells Blackjack, his black Labrador.
Fear and Loafing runs on the first Sunday of every month in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.