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You think cleaning your garage or policing your backyard for dog poop is a dirty job? If so, you really need to read this article. Modern life is full of truly dirty jobs, and Isthmus set out to find some of the nastiest ones and the people who tackle them.
From cleaning up crime scenes to mucking out cages at the zoo, these are jobs most of us would never consider doing. But here's the kicker: Many of these workers love their dirty jobs.
Take, for example, Jim Hirsch, who owns the local franchise of Paul Davis Restoration and Remodeling. He and his 22 employees get a lot of satisfaction out of putting things right after a fire or flood.
"I enjoy the sense that we are helping people and the challenge of restoring a structure," he says.
Hirsch is not alone. Others who do jobs like these know what they do is necessary, and usually appreciated. We may not like to think about doing these jobs, but we sure as heck are glad they get done.
So as we head into Labor Day weekend, here's a sampling of some really gross jobs and a tribute to the people who do them.
Backed-up sewer? Call me
Earlier this summer, heavy rains caused a wastewater sewer to back up and flood a finished basement. The results were not pretty, as Paul Davis employee Mike Jensen relates.
"When a sewer backs up, sewage shoots up through floor drains and toilets like a fountain," he says. "In this house, there was two feet of sewage in the basement. With a backup, we don't know exactly what's in the water, but you see a lot of disgusting stuff - toilet paper, solid waste and cigarette butts."
Jensen says sewer backups are not just icky; they are hazardous to workers and residents: "We have to contain contamination so it doesn't spread more and clean it up without exposing ourselves and homeowners to danger." Workers use air scrubbers and wear respirators and full protective gear.
While sewer backups are bad, Jensen says his worst job was cleaning an attic full of bat guano after a roof fire.
"The odor was unbelievable," he recalls. "You could smell it from outside, and the ceiling had collapsed so the guano fell into the house. It was really hot and, in protective gear, very uncomfortable. We all take a kind of perverse pride in doing the dirtiest job, so I got a lot of street cred for being the guy who cleaned that up."
Jensen, 45, has a master's degree in linguistics from UW-Madison. Before he joined the company five years ago, he spent about 12 years in Japan and Korea teaching English and doing translations. Returning to the U.S. in 2006, he was ready for a change.
"When I started doing restoration, people thought I was crazy," he laughs. "But I like this business. I like to think of it as health care for buildings. When people have some terrible situation in their home, they don't know what to do or how to clean it up. They think their home is ruined. It's satisfying to know we can clean it up for them. And after we have been working for a day or two, you can see that people know it's going to be okay."
Cleaning up after hoarders
Imagine walking into a house stacked floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall with stuff: furniture, trash, old magazines things you can't even identify. There's so much stuff that only narrow aisles allow a person to pass from room to room. Welcome to the home of a hoarder.
"The first impression is a sensory overload that feels like a punch in the gut," says Jason Gates, who has been called to clean up several hoarders' houses after a fire or flood. "And frankly, it's almost always filthy because the more stuff you have in a house, the less you're able to clean around it."
Gates, 33, who has been at Paul Davis Restoration for six years, has encountered two kinds of hoarders. One group consists of compulsive collectors who believe everything is a treasure.
"These are people who just can't bear to part with anything," he says. "They may start out by collecting some things - old furniture, troll dolls or cough-drop tins - but then their collections just get out of hand. The compulsion to collect overcomes their housekeeping efforts."
Other hoarders never even take out the trash or clean anything, making the house literally unfit to live in. Gates describes one such house he worked on after a fire.
"It was the worst I've ever seen, especially the kitchen," he says. "Every horizontal surface was covered with garbage and filth. A number of cats had the run of the place, but there were no food dishes or litter boxes. The owner just dumped piles of litter and cat food on the floor."
On the countertops, two to three feet of dirty dishes, food scraps and unidentifiable compost had accumulated over a solid layer of rodent feces.
Gates says cleaning up that mess as well as repairing the fire damage took about three weeks. But, in the end, the house was safe and habitable.
"Not every job is this filthy," Gates says. "If I had to do houses with garbage and feces every day, I guess I might look for other work."
Have cows, will inseminate
Up to his ankles in cow dung, Jason Gulk sticks a gloved arm deep into a Holstein's colon. The cow poops a little, a small share of the two and a half cubic feet of manure she puts out every day.
"I'm palpating for the cervix," he explains, selecting a thin syringe containing a small amount of bull semen from the front of his coveralls. "Sometimes, if they are gassy or full, it can be a little hard to find." He deftly inserts the semen shooter into the cow's womb. Another Holstein knocked up.
Gulk, 45, is an artificial inseminator for Accelerated Genetics. On this warm, sunny morning, he is impregnating a couple dozen of the 600 cows in a Fitchburg herd. This big dairy farm is a daily stop for Gulk, who often visits 18 to 20 farms a day, seven days a week, with just three days off each month. He works nine to 12 hours every day except Sunday, when he puts in only a seven-hour day.
"In this business, you have to get to the farm when the cows are ready. And I'm paid on commission," he explains. In addition to inseminating cows, he must make sales calls and build his own client base.
Gulk grew up on a red-barn dairy in Grant County and likes staying close to the land. "I'm my own boss. This truck is my office. I like being outdoors. And I like the cows."
Most of the cows are brought into a timed heat with hormone injections. Gulk carefully checks each cow's rear end for a chalk mark he applied the previous day. If the mark is gone, he knows the cow is ready for his service. Other cows attempting to mount her will have erased the mark.
Gulk returns to his truck to select semen for the next group of cows from a vat chilled to 350 degrees below zero. He also needs to change his glove, which has torn.
"They break sometimes," he says, wiping a bit of cow do-do off his hand with a paper towel. "But I never get sick or anything. I think I'm immune to everything."
Taking care of the mess
A man distraught about a failing marriage puts a 12-gauge loaded with bird shot under his chin and pulls the trigger.
A man dies alone at home in the heat of summer and is not found until two weeks later.
A woman shoots and kills an intruder in her home.
Who cleans up after such tragic incidents? In Madison, it is often Judd Sweitzer and Carly Lincoln, proprietors of Winchester Crime and Trauma Recovery. Their website motto reads: "Erasing the Aftermath."
"I get a great sense of accomplishment from helping people who have had something terrible happen to them to start to heal and move on," says Sweitzer, 41.
Lincoln, 34, his business partner and fiancée, agrees. "This is the most rewarding job I've ever done. When these things happen, it has to be taken care of. We're on a mission, and we're glad to do it."
The 2008 movie Sunshine Cleaning dealt with a similar crime-scene cleanup operation, but the details as explained by Sweitzer and Lincoln seem much grittier.
When there's a violent death, there's blood, often a lot of blood. In the case of that shotgun suicide, there was also brain tissue and bone fragments. And that body found after two weeks? It was badly decomposed, giving off the worst stench imaginable and covered with thousands of flies. (Readers with strong stomachs can read the gory details in the company's newsletter.)
Sweitzer and Lincoln follow strict protocols and wear protective gear. Hard surfaces are cleaned and disinfected, and everything else that's been contaminated - upholstered furniture, carpets, even wallboard - gets tossed.
Sweitzer earned a long list of technical certifications to do this kind of work during a 20-year Army career. Lincoln brings her business background to the company, but she also dons protective gear and works at the scenes.
Sometime the cleanup doesn't end with the physical mess. Sweitzer says the woman who killed the intruder called him almost daily for a while.
"She'd have a question about insurance or some other thing, but really she needed to talk with someone who could understand what had happened in her home," he says. "Our mission is to approach every job with care and compassion, to help people get some closure and start to put their lives back together."
Look what those animals have done!
The animal keepers who work at the Henry Vilas Zoo shovel a lot of dung - 170 tons a year, not counting the runoff that flows from the enclosures through storm sewers to an underground containment space. But zoo employees say dealing with the waste from the exotic animals is not the worst part of their jobs.
"The bathrooms for the humans are far worse," says Jim Hubing, zoo director.
The zoo, which had 707,000 visitors last year, has just one women's and one men's restroom.
"We have so many people using the restrooms, so we have to expect some mess," says Jeff Stafford, the zoo's general curator. "But sometimes, what we find is really disgusting. The most disturbing thing is when people write on the wall with excrement. That is not fun to clean up. And it's psychologically disappointing."
The workers also encounter vomit, blood, feces, urine and used toilet tissue on the floors and soiled clothing in the commodes. Every morning, they arm themselves with buckets, mops, disinfectant, gloves and safety glasses and, by the time the zoo gates open, the restrooms are pristine. For a while.
Another distasteful zoo task is the annual mucking out of that underground enclosure. This job falls to Brian Wilson, in charge of facilities and animal life support.
"The containment pit is about the size of a racquetball court, and you go in through a manhole and start shoveling," says Wilson. "It's sloppy. It's wet. And it smells. It's a smorgasbord of zoo poop down there."
Most years about a foot of waste accumulates, but Wilson says the first year he took on the task, the pit had not been cleaned for 15 years and the waste was four feet deep. "I lost a boot in it," he recalls, flashing a good-natured grin. "We hired three people from a temp agency to help with the job. On the second day, only one came back."
Despite it all, the workers love their jobs. Stafford, 58, has been at the zoo for 15 years. Wilson, 39, started there 20 years ago. And Hubing, 69, came out of a brief retirement to become director in 2000. It's the joy of working with the animals and the opportunity to connect with a wide variety of visitors that keep them on the job.
"I might get frustrated sometimes," says Stafford, "but then I can go out and let a giraffe lick my head. That makes it all better."
Keeping the potties pristine
Portable toilets pop up everywhere - at fairs, festivals, construction sites, race routes and sporting events. We take for granted they'll be there when we need them, and we hope we choose a clean one. But where do they come from? And who cleans them?
One local company is Bucky's Portable Restrooms, managed by Chuck Kerns, who also joins his workers in the daily job of cleaning them.
"I still do the dirty part of the job every day," he says. "I figure if I'm going to have people do this work, they have to see I do the worst part of it, too."
The job involves sucking the waste from the tank while stirring it with what Kerns calls the "wand," then pressure-washing the interior with a disinfectant solution and refilling the tank with clean water and disinfectant. Kerns, 45, has been doing this work since he was 9 years old, to help out in the family business. He says he no longer notices the smell.
Demand for his service is steady. Bucky's has 1,200 regular portable toilets - as well as sinks, shower trailers and several extra-fancy trailers with flush toilets - which it sends to sites around Wisconsin and beyond.
The company is also available to aid in disaster-relief. After Hurricane Katrina, Kerns and nine of his employees took 600 portable toilets and a number of sinks and shower trailers to refugees and relief workers in Louisiana and Texas. They have provided facilities after several other hurricanes and the 2008 Nashville flood.
"It's a big rush when we get the opportunity to do stuff like that," Kerns says. "We know we'll be the first ones in to provide toilets for the Red Cross, power companies and emergency workers. Normally, people take portable toilets for granted. But in emergency work, people are really appreciative and so glad to have a place to go to the bathroom."
Such moments, says Kerns, more than make up for the job's downsides, like finding soiled underwear on the floor or a dead cat in the tank or having a portable toilet blown up by a pipe bomb - all things he says happen far more often than you really want to know.