The heck with paper routes. Seventeen-year-old Christian Alf is earning pocket money by fending off the nasty roof rats that have invaded his hometown. The Tempe teen not only launched his own roof rat-proofing business this past winter, but has also prevailed over the wicked bureaucrats who tried to shut him down for busting rats without a license. Roof rats and snaky civil servants, beware: Christian Alf is gunning for you.
New Times: What's a teenager doing in the roof rat business? Shouldn't you be out playing kickball or something?
Christian Alf: Well, last January I was over at my grandparents' house, and we were talking about the problem because the roof rats had just arrived in Tempe. They came over from the Arcadia neighborhood.
NT: How'd they get here? Hail a cab?
Alf: I don't really know. Anyway, we were discussing the problem, and I'd received a packet from the guy who's sort of the head of the roof rat thing in Arcadia, and the packet described the process that I now sell -- how to do it, what material you need to keep the rats out of your attic and your home. Anyway, my grandparents said, "Hey, there are a lot of elderly people in this neighborhood who can't get up on their roofs, you could make some real money doing that for them." It turned out to be a good thing.
NT: How does one catch a roof rat? Dress up like a piece of cheese and sit really still?
Alf: I'm not trying to catch them. I use this steel mesh that covers exterior pipes and vents so that rats can't get from the roof to the ground and into your house to eat through the electrical wires and all that. It's a lot of work, but the money's good.
NT: I guess you're a little long in the tooth to be running a lemonade stand. The Pest Control Commission got all pissy and tried to shut you down. And then the Institute for Justice took up your case.
Alf: Yeah. There was an article about my business in the newspaper, and I got a lot of calls from that, and one [of the calls was] from the Pest Control Commission, saying that what I was doing was extermination, and that I needed a license to do that. Which would take close to two years' apprenticeship to achieve. So they made my mom sign a cease and desist order saying that I would stop this work immediately and would not do any more houses.
NT: Strong-armed by the rat police!
Alf: Yeah, but the Institute for Justice came and said that what the Commission did was wrong. That I didn't fall under their jurisdiction, because I wasn't doing extermination. I considered it more like handyman work. I wasn't dealing with pests or pesticides, just creating a barrier to rats.
NT: An inspector with the Arizona Structural Pest Control Commission busted you. What was his problem?
Alf: He said that his boss saw the article about me in the paper and told him, "You need to make sure this kid is legal." I'm not sure why they really wanted to stop me, but that's what they said.
NT: I smell a rat!
Alf: Oh, no.
NT: Sorry. So, you were accused of violating two separate state laws.
Alf: They both pertain to the use of pesticides, but I'm not a lawyer, so I can't even tell you how to read them. What the Institute for Justice did was say that the laws only pertained to people using pesticides in extermination and had nothing to do with what I was doing.
NT: Why is it necessary to get a license to put up wire mesh across vents?
Alf: It's not. There's no experience required to do that. It's not something you can go to school for. I think they were trying to put me out of business because of the competition. I've heard that a regular extermination company charges close to $300 for what I do. I charge $30.
NT: If they come after you again, you could always just claim you're putting up the wire mesh for cosmetic purposes.
Alf: Yeah, but after they found out about me and made my parents sign that order saying I wouldn't do any more, I stopped because I believed it was right. I could have kept going and not called it rat-proofing.
NT: Why didn't you?
Alf: I believe in integrity, and I was told I was breaking the law. So I signed the paper, and I stood by it.
NT: Did you think about revenge? Did you see the movie Willard?
Alf: No. I didn't try to sic rats on them.
NT: But you did sic your attorney on the Pest Control Commission.
Alf: Actually, the Institute for Justice picked up my case without me having to go after [the commission]. They came free of charge and said they wanted this case because of the morals and what it stood for. The state can't shut down an entrepreneur for doing what [he] thought was right.
NT: But this doesn't strike me as a civil rights case.
Alf: It's your right to earn an honest living without government control. The Institute for Justice looks for cases about property rights, freedom of choice, and freedom of speech. They contacted me stating they wanted to fight for me.
NT: How has this whole mess changed your view of government?
Alf: It really hasn't, but it has opened my eyes to how the government works.
NT: Or doesn't work.
Alf: Right. But I'm not bitter. Everything fell back together, and everything worked out fine for me in the end.
NT: I'll say. Your case drew a lot of attention to your business, and you got a lot of new clients. How do we know your run-in with the law wasn't just a publicity ploy?
Alf: No one has accused me of that. I wouldn't have gone through all this. It would have been easier to just take out an ad or something. Most people were rooting for me, and they were glad I was going to fight for my rights.
NT: Do the other kids call you Rat Boy?
Alf: My close friends do, but I think they're just teasing. Everyone else is pretty nice. They say they saw me on TV, or that they've read an article about me. A few of them have asked me for my autograph, which is fun.
NT: It's sort of nice to see someone trying to exterminate pesky rodents, rather than, say, elect them to public office. What are you going to do with all this money?
Alf: I'm saving it for college. I want to go to a large engineering college. I plan to go into aerospace engineering.
NT: That seems like a natural progression.
Alf: Do you think so? I don't see how. But I hope you're right.
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