Low End Theory: Repellent



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By Brendan I. Koerner

The animal lover in me so wants ultrasonic pest repellers to work. It's probably slightly speciesist of me to kill mice for periodically invading my kitchen, right? All they're doing is being mice, chasing after scraps of food as nature intended.

The cheapskate in me is pro-ultrasonic, too. A pack of low-end glue traps is five bucks; the Viatek model pictured at right can be had for under $10. Over the long haul, 'tis cheaper to go with the gadget than with the epoxy.

Pity, then, that that ultrasonic pest repellers work about as well as voodoo dolls. This fact is well-documented, and the debunkings stretch back to at least the 1970s. And yet the repellers remain on the market, presumably making a mint off sensitive, geeky skinflints like your humble narrator. The success of such an obviously deficient product provides a textbook example of how to market a dubious gadget.

Identify Consumer Unease Glue and spring traps work all right—I can personally vouch for the effectiveness of using peanut butter M&M's as bait. But people still hate dealing with dead or, worse, struggling rodents—not everyone has the cojones necessary to toss a still-living mouse down the incinerator chute. (No hate mail, please!) The obvious solution is a trap that doesn't just snap a rodent's neck or bog it down in glue, but rather vaporizes the body into nothingness. This being outside the realm of technological feasibility, someone had the bright idea for the ultrasonic repeller, which is all about limiting your cleanup duties. Note that the hype sheets for ultrasonic repellers don't necessarily claim they work better than traditional traps; they just stress that you won't have to touch or see any rodents. In other words, they promise you a neat-freak Fantasyland. Too bad real life is a messy affair, one which rodents have been a part of since the dawn of time.

Use Mumbo-Jumbo We all grow up learning that dogs can hear noises that humans can't. From this tidbit of trivia, we naturally extrapolate that rodents' ears act the same, and that they're obviously averse to constant, high-pitched noise. The hype sheets reinforce this assumption by invoking specs that seem impressive: "Ultrasonic energy with a range of 32-65 kHz is emitted from this unit on a random frequency." Kilohertz? Wow, that's fancy science-speak! Or at least that's the reaction the manufacturers are trying to elicit. But all the sonic terminology in the world can't cover up the fact that there's scarcely a shred of scientific evidence to support the repellers' efficacy.

Go Into Opposition Whenever a manufacturer of ultrasonic repellers is challenged on their product's usefulness, the response is usually along the lines of, "Of course The Man is saying that—he's in the pocket of the pest-control industry!" Okay, maybe not those precise words, but the gist of their typical defense is pretty clear—the main opponents of ultrasonic technology are the trap-makers and exterminators who have much to gain by eliminating their competition. It helps the ultrasonic folks that the general public generally doesn't have a high opinion of professional rat killers and their ilk—the most famous exterminator in pop culture might well be Dale Gribble from King of the Hill, and he's sort of a freak. (For the record, I have the utmost respect for rodent-control specialists after reading Robert Sullivan's Rats while in India.)

Milk the Placebo Effect I bet there's at least a few folks among today's column readers who are saying to themselves, "This writer doesn't know jack-all about rodent control! I used an ultrasonic controllers some years back, and I never saw another mouse." Let me respond by saying this: We human beings are poor judges of cause and effect. Or, in more eloquent lingo, correlation does not imply causation. The ultrasonic industry relies on people who've enjoyed the happy coincidence of installing their repeller just as their mice decided to skedaddle for better feeding grounds. It's natural to feel giddy once your house is no longer overrun by furry, nibbling vermin, and one way people express this joy is by frequenting the Internets and writing testimonials about their ultrasonic repellers. And so a vicious cycle continues...

Low End Theory: Repellent

Look Smart This may seem like a minor point, but the repeller industry deserves credit for its product-design chops. The Viatek model, for example, looks like a high-tech night-light, complete with ethereal aquamarine glow. If guests come by, you can explain it away as a radon sensor, an air freshener, or something less embarrassing than a way to rid your home of critters commonly associated with hantavirus or (in the case of rats) the Black Death. Glue traps? Not so easy to lie about those—you can try the air-freshener line, but no guarantees that it'll work. Ultrasonic repellers thus prey upon on our inborn need to make it appear as if everything's hunky-dory—sort of like control-top pantyhose, I guess.

Let me close by saying that, if you work for a manufacturer of ultrasonic repellers, I'm willing to hear your side of the story. I've certainly been wrong about some things in my life—Lord knows I botched my March Madness bracket this year. (Damn you, Texas Longhorns!) Drop me a line and I'll run your defense in next week's column. But if I don't hear anything, I'll continue to assume the worst.

Oh, and a last word for anyone horrified by my apparent lack of empathy for rodents: No, I've yet to try those live mice traps, but I'm willing to give 'em a go—especially since they've now reached low-end status. But do they work? Opinions in comments or directly to me, please.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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