Napoleon Louis Poulin, founder of Poulin’s Pest Control, currently celebrating 75 years in business, was born in 1894 on a farm south of St. Malo. He begged his mother and father for a dog while growing up but their answer was always the same: maybe next year.
In the summer of 1902 he found a stray on their property. He befriended the pooch and kept it in a grain shed, out of his parents’ sight. One morning he rolled out of bed bright and early to feed his new best friend, only to discover it had been viciously attacked by rats during the night.
"It all started when I was a little boy," he told a reporter from the Winnipeg Tribune in 1962, three years before his retirement and five years before his death at age 73. "I had a little puppy dog and the rats chewed him to bits. Ever since then I’ve been killing them back.
"I know it sounds like something out of a horror movie but it’s 100 per cent true," says Lincoln Poulin, 40, Napoleon Poulin’s grandson and current president of the venerable exterminating company, still at its original location at the foot of the Norwood Bridge. (After that particular span was twinned in the 1990s, a new road constructed in front of Poulin’s two-storey, head office was named Poulin Drive, in honour of the business, the third-largest, independently-owned exterminator in the country with operations in seven cities across Western Canada.)
"My dad, who passed away in 2018, used to tell that story to me and my brother when we were kids and we’d be like, ‘You’re kidding, right?’"
Napoleon Poulin got his revenge, that’s true, but it took a while. Before establishing his namesake company in 1946, he spent close to three decades in the hospitality biz.
"His thing was buying small-town hotels whose bar and restaurant had been shut down by health inspectors," Lincoln Poulin says, seated in his second-floor office, his grandfather’s old BB gun, the barrel welded shut, resting on a shelf directly above his head. "He’d go in, get rid of all the vermin by himself and either reopen or sell it at a profit. After his sixth or seventh hotel, the inspector who gave it a passing grade kidded him, saying, ‘Napoleon, I think you’re in the wrong business.’ I guess he finally agreed."
In Poulin’s top drawer is a yellowed, Winnipeg Free Press article dated Jan. 22, 1955, carrying the headline, The Man Who Killed Ten Million Rats. The piece spelled out how his grandfather was awarded a $150,000 contract — equivalent to $1.68 million in today’s dollars — by the Alberta government in 1951 to seek and destroy every last rat in a 4,800-square-mile area along the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. The elder Poulin, accompanied by six hand-picked teams of workers, spent two years rat-proofing buildings, distributing bait stations and administering a reported 63,600 kilograms of arsenic-laced rodent poison in an effort to make that province rat-free. (That’s right, Alberta’s rat population met its Waterloo at the hand of a man named Napoleon.)
Don Poulin, Lincoln’s father, was only 15 years old when his dad offered him a choice: stay in Winnipeg and finish high school or hop in with him and his cohorts to hunt rats out west. Don didn’t spend too long mulling things over, his son says.
"To a teenager in the ’50s, it would have been this huge adventure," says Poulin, who took over the company’s day-to-day affairs in 2016 when his father took a step back. "My dad and I were driving through Alberta one time on the way to our Calgary office and he kept pointing out spots on the side of the highway, saying, "We camped there… and there… and there.’ Getting that job is what put us on the map, no question about it."
Poulin guesses he was 14 years old when he accompanied his father on a call for the first time. A meat-packing plant in St. Boniface had a cockroach problem, and the manager asked Don Poulin to come have a look. As it turned out, the insects’ nest was in the main slaughterhouse, not the sort of place a teenager expects to find himself on a Sunday morning. The younger Poulin must have had a strong stomach, mind you, because by the time he was a Grade 10 student at St. Boniface Diocesan High School, he was working for his father a few nights a week and most weekends.
Poulin was hoping to go into the family business full time after completing Grade 12 but his father had other ideas. Instead of hiring him, he handed him a plane ticket to Nova Scotia, with instructions to live with relatives there while working for a Halifax-based pest control company. The elder Poulin had told that business’s owner, whom he knew from trade shows, that Lincoln wasn’t to be the recipient of any favours; he wanted his son to learn the hard way whether he was interested in a career as an exterminator.
"Even when I came back to Winnipeg however many months later, my dad was still careful not to give me any assignments that the other people working here might have seen as cushy," Poulin says. "I had my own route and clients to take care of, and if an emergency call came in at midnight on a Saturday, I was usually the first one out the door, trying to coax a raccoon out of a chimney or whatever."
Although he hasn’t updated his stats lately, Poulin says the top three pests his company deals with — mice, cockroaches and bedbugs — doesn’t deviate much from year to year. As cities continue to grow by spreading into animals’ natural habitats, calls about beavers, voles, geese, even coyotes, shoot up, he says. Sensitive to the fact the critters were there first, he and his staff recommend non-chemical solutions wherever possible, much preferring to live-trap and relocate varmints. Not that it always works.
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"Last month I got a call from a homeowner who could hear chirping every time he turned his range hood fan on. It turned out some sparrows were nesting in the vent, so after cleaning out this ton of debris we capped ’er from the outside and went on our way," he says. "Two weeks later I got a call from the same guy. Heck if those sparrows hadn’t pecked their way back through the vent cover and rebuilt their nest inside. I was like, ‘OK, after 25 years in the business, I can safely say I’ve never seen that before.’"
Poulin, who’s been stung more times than he can count and, the same as you and me, jumps back if he’s in the garage and a mouse scampers past his foot, says what he enjoys most about his chosen profession is that no two jobs are ever the same. Sure, when he’s poking through a restaurant kitchen dealing with an influx of fruit flies or a house that’s been invaded by carpenter ants, he has a pretty good idea where to start looking. Following that, it’s game on.
"Quite often you’re matching wits with animals that are very, very intelligent. For example, if we’re trying to live-trap a skunk by putting sardines in a cage and it doesn’t work the first time, he’s going to think, ‘They put sardines in there the last time. I don’t think I’m too interested in sardines any more,’ and you’re going to have a tough time tricking him."
On the same subject, he laughs when asked how he views flicks such as Caddyshack, where Bill Murray’s golf course groundskeeper character spends 90 minutes doing everything in his power to obliterate a pesky gopher: with a bowl of popcorn or grain of salt?
"I can definitely turn off my exterminator brain when I’m watching something like Caddyshack but when my dad was with us, not so much," he says, breaking into a wide grin. "I remember one time we were watching Arachnophobia together. During that scene where John Goodman’s character starts shooting spiders from the hip, all crazy-like, he was all, ‘C’mon, no real exterminator would ever do it that way.’"
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
Poulin’s Pest Control isn’t just celebrating its 75 years in business, it’s also toasting the 50th anniversary of its iconic, big band-style radio jingle, which recites the business’s seven-digit phone number a la, “Dial two-three-three, two-five-oh-oh!”
Funnily enough, if it had been up to Don Poulin, this earworm of a commercial wouldn’t have lasted five minutes, let alone 50 years.
“I was only one when the jingle came out in 1971 but years later my dad told me how much he hated it, the first time he heard it,” says Lincoln Poulin, adding if you give him five minutes, he can probably find the original cassette recording of the tune, written and produced by an ad agency in New York City.
“Except after it started getting played on the radio — and the phone here started to ring off the hook — he said to himself, ‘I guess we’re stuck with it.’”
Two years ago Poulin was serving as best man at a friend’s wedding. As he was walking to the microphone to deliver a toast to the groom, the DJ fired up the commercial, encouraging the entire crowd to sing along.
“It was a little embarrassing but at the same time, there’s nothing wrong with a little free advertising, right?”