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December 21, 2014

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What are the dirtiest jobs in Las Vegas? Come take a look — and a whiff

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L.E. Baskow

Bob Combs of R.C. Farms Inc. scoops up a bucket of freshly cooked food scraps for his pigs on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014.

Maybe you’ve been having a case of the Mondays. You didn’t drink enough coffee. The car didn’t start. You partied too hard over the weekend. Your boss is getting under your skin. Or you’re just plain worn out.

We get it. The work day blues strike us all once in a while. But consider this: While some jobs certainly can get monotonous, others downright stink — literally.

Farmer Bob Combs mucks around in pig slop. Embalmer Heather Sparks fashions the dead. Diver Tim Harsh scrubs fish poop. The work might sound gross, but it is crucial to the city’s economy and our residents’ well-being. And perhaps most surprising: The people who do these jobs love their work.

    • Chuck Frommer, butcher at John Mull’s Meats and Road Kill Grill



      Chuck Frommer has scars, big and small, on his hands and forearms, battle wounds from years of wielding a knife.

      As the third-generation owner of John Mull’s Meats and Road Kill Grill, Frommer has spent countless hours slashing wild animal carcasses for meat. That has led to more than 2,000 stitches and thousands of gallons of bloodshed.

      Making the cut

      • Mull’s charges an average of 70 cents a pound to cut and wrap wild game. The butchers charge more for skinning and boning.

      • The Bureau of Labor Statistics counted 139,000 butchers in the U.S. last year.

      • Butchers earn a median salary of $28,360.

      • Butchers are responsible not only for cutting up carcasses but for aging meat as well. Aging increases tenderness and flavor.

      • John Mull’s Meats and Road Kill Grill: 3730 Thom Blvd., Las Vegas, 702-645-1200

      The stitches were his, not so much the blood.

      Hunters drop off wild game — antelope, deer, elk and bighorn sheep hunted on land as little as two hours away — for processing at John Mull’s. Frommer hangs the dead animals from metal rails to drain them of packed ice, blood and other bodily fluids. The mixture drips from their bodies, creating horror movie-like scenes.

      Last weekend, dozens of antelope arrived each day because Nevada’s antelope hunting season opened Aug. 22.

      Labor facts and figures

      • Nevada tied in July for having the third-highest unemployment rate nationally. Almost 8 percent of Nevadans are jobless and seeking work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s down almost 2 percentage points from last year.

      • Mathematician topped the list of best jobs of 2014, according to a survey by jobs website CareerCast.com. Crunching numbers pays an average of $101,360 a year, and job prospects are expected to grow 23 percent by 2022. Mathematicians are employed in almost every sector, from health care to technology to sports to politics.

      • There are 268,000 leisure and hospitality jobs in Las Vegas, making it the valley’s largest employment sector, followed by trade, transportation and utilities (160,400 jobs), professional and business services (116,800 jobs) and government (97,200 jobs), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

      “I was covered with blood all day,” Frommer said. “It was messy.”

      By Monday morning, 40 skinned antelope carcasses dangled in a 33-degree cooler. Frommer, 53, unhooked one and hauled it to a cutting room, where he swiped his sharpened blade up and down, back and forth, carving the antelope’s legs.

      “Just imagine this little critter was running around the countryside minding his own business,” Frommer said.

      Butchering wild game generally takes about 15 minutes an animal, unless Frommer is dealing with an emu, whose hollow, lightweight bones make shearing the meat difficult.

      The gore doesn’t bother Frommer, but spending long days standing in a chilly room makes his fingers and feet ache.

      As a child, Frommer helped his grandfather in the butcher business, first cleaning, then working his way up. Eventually, he attended meat-cutting school in Minnesota and, in 1981, bought the business, which includes a restaurant and catering operation, from his uncle. The company processes about 25 animals a day on slow days and as many as 120 a day during the height of hunting season.

      “It never stops,” Frommer said. “It’s never complete. It just keeps going and going.”

      Which means it’s only a matter of time until Frommer needs more stitches.

    • Bob Combs, owner of R.C. Farms



      Bob Combs’ wife enforces a strict no-boots rule in their North Las Vegas home. Combs often rolls his eyes at the request, but who could blame Janet, the woman he lovingly calls “boss”?

      Combs, a sturdy 75-year-old dressed in dirt-laden blue jeans, suspenders and a pig-shaped belt buckle, owns and operates R.C. Farms, where pigs feast on repurposed food scraps from Strip casinos.

      Dirt and other unsavory substances come with the territory. Chickens, rabbits and ducks scurry freely on the 100-plus acres of desert farmland that’s Combs’ pride and joy.

      “I’m doing the lord’s work,” he said. “I’m doing the job not everyone wants or likes, but they appreciate it.”

      Hog heavean

      • R.C. Farms collects 1,000 tons of food scraps every month.

      • Combs reportedly turned down a $70 million offer to buy his farm.

      • Used cooking grease is a key ingredient in Combs’ pig stew. He skims the top layer of grease from food sludge to sell to soap and cosmetics makers.

      • R.C. Farms, 555 E. El Campo Grande Ave., North Las Vegas, 702-642-0350

      His dad was a pig farmer in Arizona and Southern California. Combs opened R.C. Farms in 1963.

      A giant stew pot boils scraps that will be fed to the farm’s 2,500 pigs. Most will go to market, destined to become bacon, ham and ribs.

      When food scraps arrive from the Strip, Combs and his employees do a final sort, looking for stray pieces of plastic, glass and metal in the mashed food remnants. Aprons and long gloves serve as splash guards.

      “It’s intriguing to see what comes down that belt,” Combs said. “One time we found a loaded pistol.”

      And because what goes into the pigs must come out, the farm is home to heaping mounds of pig manure bound for fertilizing at nearby Gilcrease Orchard. Even Combs, whose nose is used to the farm-scent, admits the manure reeks after rain.

      Combs considers it a small price to pay for his own slice of Americana, a rarity in Las Vegas that he’s pleased to show local students. Combs and his wife host field trips and let students feed lunch scraps to the pigs to teach them about sustainability and waste.

      “We love to have them get a little feel of agriculture and farm life,” he said.

      Dirty shoes and all.

    • Tim Harsh, diver at Mandalay Bay’s Shark Reef Aquarium



      Dressed in a chainmail suit, Tim Harsh looks like a battle-ready medieval warrior.

      His opponents? Fish.

      Harsh, 59, is a diver at Mandalay Bay’s Shark Reef Aquarium, where he enters the tanks armed with brushes and pressure washers to fight algae and fish waste that build up on the exhibit’s massive, artificial coral reef. Dozens of varieties of aquatic life live there, including tropical fish, sea turtles, sharks and stingrays.

      Going deep

      • Sharks poop. They let out large plumes of yellow-green feces that nearby fish clamor to eat.

      • Harsh is responsible for cleaning aquariums and exhibits that hold 1.6 million gallons of freshwater and saltwater.

      • More than 2,000 animals from 100 species are displayed at the Shark Reef Aquarium. It is home to 15 species of sharks.

      • Mandalay Bay Shark Reef: 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas, 702-632-4555

      He easily can spend two hours in the largest tank, meticulously scrubbing scum from the reef and windows while wearing more than 50 pounds of gear in water 23 feet deep.

      “It’s not an easy job,” said Harsh, who has been a Shark Reef diver for four years. “It’s an enjoyable job. You’re under pressure, literally.”

      Harsh, who also captains a commercial dive boat on Lake Mead, fell in love with diving while visiting his brother in Hawaii. Despite the icky duties, he considers his Shark Reef job one of the coolest in the world.

      Not everyone agrees. Historically, the job hasn’t had the best retention rate. A few divers lasted only six months, after the novelty wore off, he said.

      Swimming among sea creatures still carries a bit of mystery for Harsh, and it’s possible the animals feel the same way: A zebra shark cozies up to Harsh’s leg while he washes windows, while whitetip reef sharks follow him like puppies.

      He dismisses the notion of being nervous but concedes he must keep his guard up, especially when the animals try to use him as a bodyguard.

      “In the springtime — breeding season — the females are trying to hide behind you, and the males are trying to catch the females,” he said. “It does get a little dicey at times.”

      But not enough to keep him away. Harsh has logged more than 1,200 dives at the Shark Reef.

    • Dr. Mark Leo, urologist at Urology Specialists of Nevada



      Dr. Mark Leo’s introduction to urology began with football and doughnuts.

      As a medical student, Leo signed up for a rotation in urology, the branch of medicine that focuses on the urinary tract and male reproductive system, only because all the other options were taken.

      He started his rotation on a Monday and found his supervising doctor and the residents in a break room watching sports highlights.

      The doctor is in

      • Urologists in the western United States earn an average salary of $343,000 a year.

      • Private practice urologists see an average of 50 to 100 patients each week, according to the American College of Surgeons.

      • Urology Specialists of Nevada: Multiple locations in Henderson and Las Vegas, 702-877-0814

      “Boy, that’s strange,” Leo remembers the urologist telling him. “No one ever rotates with us.”

      The doctor ushered him inside the break room and asked if he liked football and doughnuts. The doctor and residents were friendly and easygoing and immediately clicked with Leo, who describes himself as an approachable, laid back kind of guy.

      The instant connection might have been more than coincidence. In this medical specialty, those traits prove to be invaluable.

      “People like to pee, and they like to have sex,” said Leo, now a urologist at Urology Specialists of Nevada. “Those are the two things we help people with the most.”

      Leo doesn’t spend his days looking at urine samples or conducting rectal exams. Gastroenterologists, actually, handle the latter.

      Instead, he splits his time between the operating room and seeing patients in his office, treating prostate disease, kidney stones, urinary tract infections, erectile dysfunction, infertility and cancer.

      He has learned to prepare for the unexpected, so he keeps an extra shirt in his office. He has lost track of how many patients have accidentally urinated on him.

      “You get used to that a little,” he said.

      But the positives of the job — helping people with their most personal problems — far outweigh the negatives, he said.

      “People come in very, very anxious and very worried,” he said. “And usually, they leave with a smile on their face.”

    • Zana Oprescu, environmental services aide at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center



      When the hiring manager noticed Zana Oprescu’s extensive restaurant experience, he paused and asked the obvious question: Would she be OK cleaning sometimes-gory hospital rooms?

      No worries, Oprescu told the manager. Blood and bodily fluids wouldn’t scare her.

      And she has kept her promise. Oprescu, 59, has been cleaning Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center’s patient, emergency and operating rooms as an environmental services aide since October 1995.

      “I put all my passion in this place,” said Oprescu, who originally is from Romania. “I like it.”

      Keeping it clean

      • The World Health Organization estimates that 1.4 million people worldwide are battling infections they acquired in hospitals.

      • About 46.5 million surgeries are performed each year in the United States.

      • Pathogens can survive on contaminated surfaces for weeks. They most commonly are transmitted to patients by health care workers’ hands.

      • Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center, 3186 S. Maryland Parkway, Las Vegas, 702-731-8000

      In an environment that runs on attention to detail and cleanliness, germicide is her biggest ally. She attacks each room with a carefully honed game plan: Gather dirty linens. Sweep the floor. Clean the operating table. Wipe the lights. Wipe the tables, carts, telephone and door. Mop the floor. Check for blood underneath the operating table.

      “Clean all over — corner to corner,” she said, pointing around an operating room. “Move all the equipment.”

      Trauma cases can be the most difficult, she said. Oprescu once spent three hours sanitizing an operating room where a car crash victim had undergone surgery. Another day, Oprescu cleaned 35 rooms in one shift.

      Oprescu — who calls the hospital her place and its workers her family — doesn’t plan to lose her baby blue scrubs anytime soon. Even the bloodiest room doesn’t seem so bad if she knows the patient fared well during a procedure.

    • Dale Smock, North Las Vegas Animal Control manager



      On a 110-degree July day, authorities received a tip about a North Las Vegas home overrun with cats.

      Dale Smock, manager of the city’s Animal Control division, soon would discover the problem was an infestation.

      The one-story home at 824 Harp Way was teeming with felines. They piled on the refrigerator, poured out of cabinets, burrowed inside a sofa, hid behind a piano. Dozens and dozens of them.

      “They would just keep coming out of the woodwork,” he said. “There were a lot of eyes on you.”

      • About 1,500 new cases of animal hoarding are discovered every year in the United States.

      • Psychologists believe that people who hoard animals use them to fulfill emotional needs that in most people are met by human interaction.

      • The owner of the 112 cats was charged with one misdemeanor count of animal cruelty. The cats were taken to Lied Animal Shelter.

      • North Las Vegas Animal Control/Lied Animal Shelter: 655 N. Mojave Road, Las Vegas, 702-633-1750 or 702-384-3333

      The 25-year Animal Control division veteran had never seen anything like it.

      Animal control officers normally spend their days impounding stray or injured animals, removing dead animals from streets, dealing with dangerous animals, responding to pet-nuisance complaints and investigating animal cruelty. But every so often, an animal hoarding situation comes to light, and it’s their job to safely remove the overcrowded cats or dogs.

      The pungent scent of ammonia wafted from the home when Smock and his officers arrived. Inside, they found urine-soaked carpets and a hallway covered with two to three inches of cat feces. To make matters worse, the home’s air conditioning wasn’t running.

      For the next several hours, Smock — wearing two pairs of gloves and a face mask — gathered handfuls of cats and carried them to waiting Animal Control vehicles.

      “We were removing so many cats, and then you’d go back in, and it didn’t even seem like we were making a dent,” he said.

      By the end of the day, Animal Control officers had removed 112 cats and one Chihuahua from the home. The extreme conditions sent Smock and two other officers to the hospital with heat exhaustion.

      Smock, a self-proclaimed animal lover, shrugs it off. They did what needed to be done, he said.

      Some aspects of his job certainly are sad or disgusting, Smock said, but there is one major bright spot: reuniting lost pets with their owners.

      “(If) you think the dog or pet owner is excited, you should see the animal,” Smock said. “Their tails are wagging 100 mph. They’re jumping up and down. It’s kind of a neat feeling.”

    • Heather Sparks, embalmer at Davis Funeral Homes

      The first time Heather Sparks saw a dead body lying on an embalming table, she jumped.

      Dead bodies are cold and green. They bloat and smell.

      Now, Sparks sees them every day.

      As a prep room supervisor for Davis Funeral Homes, Sparks transports, embalms and styles the lifeless, sometimes battered bodies, of men and women, young and old. It’s a delicate job, not for the weak of stomach.

      Embalming preserves and sanitizes dead bodies by replacing their blood with chemicals that delay decomposition. Sparks, 33, must suit up for the task. She wears latex gloves, a disposable gown, surgical face mask, visor and hospital booties.

      “This job can be very messy and dirty,” she said. “There are a lot of biohazards we have to deal with.”

      • Training to become an embalmer typically includes formal study in anatomy, chemistry, thanatology (the study of death) and embalming theory, then hands-on practice in a mortuary.

      • Embalming isn’t permanent. An embalmed body will be viewable only for about seven days.

      • Davis Funeral Home and Memorial Park, 6200 S. Eastern Ave., Las Vegas, 702-736-6200

      Then there are the olfactory hazards — the pungent scents of stale blood, cancerous growths and early decomposition.

      But none of that fazes Sparks, whose interest in medicine and anatomy led her to enroll at 19 at the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science. Dealing with the dead doesn’t creep her out.

      “It’s not as scary as it sounds,” she said.

      In a downstairs room of the funeral home, Sparks gazes at lifeless bodies, wondering how the person lived and how to spruce up his or her appearance. If the person suffered a traumatic death or battled a long illness, Sparks might have to cover cuts and bruises or work around swelling. Her arsenal of name-brand and high-end makeup works wonders, transforming the dead into an image of their former selves.

      Hair styling and dressing complete the look. She has clothed people, by request, in wedding wear, lingerie and sweatpants.

      Sparks said she pours love into the process. Sometimes, the people look better than they have in years, she said.

      “It’s kind of like getting ready for a party,” she said. “It’s the last time most people are going to see them.”

      And it’s then, when family and friends light up at the sight of their loved ones, that the gory and gloomy parts of Sparks’ job seem insignificant.

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