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Fly breeder? Nutria killer? These five unusual California state jobs might surprise you

State service takes many forms across California’s 150 departments. Here we look at five unusual or surprising jobs performed by a few of the state’s roughly 230,000 workers.

Abandoned mine inspector

Some of the abandoned mines in California are just deep holes straight down into the ground. Others offer easy access to horizontal passages. But any mine can harbor rattlesnakes, loose hanging rocks, hidden holes and even poisonous gases.

For Jon Mistchenko, it’s all a nice chance to get out of the office.

As an engineering geologist with the state Department of Conservation, Mistchenko inspects mines that have sat empty for dozens or hundreds of years. If it’s not dangerous or it’s really hard to get to, he might recommend leaving it open.

If he finds obvious safety hazards and the mine is accessible to the public, he usually recommends covering the entrance with a gate. In that case, me might also recommend putting an animal-shaped hole in it, depending on what he finds living inside.

Chuckwallas, the big lizards that live in the Southwest, often sit atop massive logs used to frame the old mines’ entrances. Birds nest up to about 10 feet in. The first 30 feet or so could hold rattlesnakes trying to cool off. Desert tortoises travel up to a few hundred feet in. In two decades on the job, Mistchenko has seen one rare ringtailed cat, also known as a “miner’s cat,” which looks a little like a housecat with a raccoon tale.

With at least one partner and equipped with gear including lights, snake gaiters, a gas sensor and a hard hat, Mistchenko takes notes for reports he writes up with his recommendations for the state or whatever local or federal public agency owns the mine.

“It is going into the unknown and we’ve had a lot of training and a lot of experience going into new mines,” said Mistchenko, 40, of Sacramento.

He still has to spend some time in an office. He scouts mines on Google Earth, reads any records available for the mines and works on bid documents, planning and mapping.

Mistchenko said he got a temporary version of the job as an undergraduate student at California State University, Sacramento, and soon decided to forgo his graduate school plans to see if he could keep doing what he was doing. He said he secured a permanent job and plans to keep it as long as he can.

Mistchenko’s salary was about $110,000 last year.

Underwater bridge inspector

David Glasgow supervises Caltrans divers these days, but for 11 years he inspected the underwater sections of bridges himself.

Glasgow said he doesn’t miss sitting in a boat in the 60 pounds of required gear, including a 35 pound helmet, before and after the five to seven dives he would perform each day.

“Once you get in the water it’s very comfortable, because everything is neutrally buoyant. But from the time you get suited up to the time you get in the water, it strains you,” said Glasgow, 58, of Fairfield.

Nearly 800 bridges in California have underwater sections deep enough to require inspections by divers, according to Caltrans. Twelve people make up the department’s underwater team, inspecting each bridge about once every five years.

Most of the state’s underwater bridge supports are made of concrete and steel. The divers check for abrasion, spalling and cracking. Twenty-five California bridges have underwater foundations made of timber, which divers check for rare marine borers.

Glasgow has seen a few oddities in his years on the dive team, including a rocket launcher in the California aqueduct near Newman and an old rotary phone booth in another section of the aqueduct. Divers commonly see cars, motorcycles, sea lions and lobsters, and occasionally fish will bump up against them in muddy water.

“It’s always different; never the same thing twice,” Glasgow said. “You’re either on the trip or prepping for the next one. It doesn’t slow down.”

His base pay was about $72,000 last year.

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Nutria killer

The Department of Fish and Wildlife is working to expand its “Nutria Eradication Project” before the invasive beagle-sized rodents chew up California’s wetlands and damage its irrigation canals and levees.

The state has one full-time employee dedicated to the project, an environmental scientist, and biologists have been trapping and killing the nutria. The job involves trudging around swamps to set and check baited traps, killing animals they catch. More than 300 of the rodents have been trapped around Merced.

Females give birth to a dozen or more babies and then can become pregnant again within 48 hours. The state estimates a quarter-million of the South American creatures could be damaging California’s wetlands if their growth isn’t slowed.

The department is asking the state for more money to ramp up its eradication efforts.

Several Fish and Wildlife environmental scientists with more than five years of experience made around $80,000 last year.

Fly breeder

Not all California state jobs are based in California. A few are based in Hawaii, where the California Department of Food and Agriculture breeds sterile Mediterranean fruit flies to release in California.

The flies constituted a large-scale threat to California’s fruit and vegetable crops when they showed up in the early 1980s. Now the sterile male flies are bred to release and mate with females to limit reproduction.

The average daily temperature at the state’s outpost in Oahu is a pleasant 82 degrees, according to a duty statement for the job. Not so pleasant is the “foul-smelling odor that permeates clothing and hair” inside production rooms where workers coax eggs to larvae, larvae to pupae and pupae to adults.

The job, with the title pest prevention assistant, also requires weeding, pruning and otherwise maintaining a two-acre coconut plantation that is “an integral part of the waste water treatment system.”

Pest prevention assistants make roughly $35,000 per year, according to the CalHR website, and those based in Hawaii make an extra 12.5 percent.

Prison dairy farmer

The Prison Industry Authority has an opening right now to oversee inmate dairy farmers at Deuel Vocational Institution in San Joaquin County.

The person who has the job now “plans and schedules labor, material, and equipment in milk production, feeding, herd health, raising calves, milking, pasteurization of milk, packaging, and loading milk trucks for delivery,” according to the job description.

The job requires supervising inmates “in the course of their duties in the milk barn, feeding, hospital barn, calf barn, corrals, milk processing plant, and other areas of the dairy operation.”

The successful candidate also “prevents escapes, maintains security of working areas and work materials, and performs other related work.”

The job pays from about $54,000 to about $68,000 per year.

Editor’s note: this story was updated to correct the nutria’s country of origin.