Credit: Danny Hellman

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There the two men sat, on a bench in Wheaton’s scenic Brookside Gardens. It was a nice day in late spring and before them stood a water fountain and a bunch of children at play.

Everything was going just fine until one of the men, Ricardo Camacho Zeas, felt something brushing against him. At first he thought it was just ants or something like that and didn’t pay it much heed. When the brushing sensation persisted, Camacho looked down and saw that a snake was navigating between his legs. The creature was black with white markings. “I shouted ‘Snake!’ to my uncle and we both jumped onto the bench and then ran off,” recalls 40-year-old Camacho via e-mail.

At that point, the uncle, 69-year-old James Zeas of Bethesda, took over. He went to Brookside management with the story of his nephew’s slithering surprise. The response was “indifferent, cold,” Zeas would later write in a complaint to Brookside. “‘[Y]es a couple of snakes had once in a while crawled into the cement paths and the workers had put them back in the bush,’” was how Zeas characterized the manager’s reaction. He insists the manager should have called the “Wild Animal Control Agency.”

Brookside management says that no one on staff “remembers receiving either a verbal or written complaint” from Zeas. Park policy is to move snakes that are mingling with people back into the vegetation. “We feel that our staff responded correctly,” says Leslie McDermott, Brookside’s marketing and media relations specialist. Zeas and Camacho maintain that their complaint wasn’t acted upon. “They said they were going to do something, though they didn’t do anything at the time—the snake just kept sunning itself,” writes Camacho via e-mail from Quito, Ecuador.

The 50-acre park pulls in more than 400,000 visitors annually, in part because it puts on memorable butterfly events and perhaps the best holiday lights extravaganza in the region. Through it all, says McDermott, the garden’s administrators rarely, if ever, receive complaints about snakes.

Until Zeas came along, that is. Not only has he lodged a written complaint with Brookside, but he also reports that he contacted his reps in the Maryland state house, including state Sen. Brian Frosh.

Zeas’ case against Brookside rests on his belief that snakes, even non-poisonous ones, can still be deadly. “[N]o one can predict how a wild animal is going to respond, just the idea of having a wild reptile, crawling in between your feet, unexpectedly can cause a heart attack in a large percentage of the population, if not death,” writes Zeas in his Brookside complaint. Camacho shares his uncle’s concern about snakes causing heart attacks.

In response to Zeas’ complaint, the park wrote, “The State of Maryland is fortunate to have only two poisonous snakes indigenous to this region (the Timber Rattlesnake and the Copperhead). The Rattlesnake has been reported in the higher elevations of the State, and no Copperhead has been seen at Brookside Gardens. Non-poisonous snakes common to the Gardens are the Eastern Garter Snake, Black Rat Snake, and the Northern Water Snake.”

Zeas believes Brookside is “fully infested” with snakes—whatever types they may be—with serious repercussions for the ecosystem:

Snakes kill also a lot of other species, including birds; notice the relative lack of birds at a large park, such as Brookside G. This situation is quite dangerous not only for visitors but also fora ll the people who live unaware in the surrounding area to the park. Finally, black snakes will attract other species of snakes and can also mutate into more dangerous species, etc. etc.

Remedies must begin with at least some “large signs,” says Zeas, warning park patrons about the snakes. But that’s just a half-measure in Zeas’ parkgoer-protection plan. Here’s the more comprehensive solution:

Since the times of the bible, then the Greeks and more recently, when the British first arrived to America, including to all the Caribbean islands, the first thing they wisely did was to spend sizeable amounts of money in campaigns to eradicate snakes from the areas where they were going to farm and live. In my opinion, this is exactly what Brookside Gardens should be doing immediately.

Rob Gibbs, MoCo parks’ natural resources manager, agreed to give Zeas’ suggestions a going-over:

• beware of snakes! Sign: “It’s not something we’ve ever considered and have not got a lot of complaints that warrant us putting up signs,” says Gibbs.

• Snakes Decimating Bird Population: “I would say Brookside Gardens has a good population of birds. I used to lead bird walks over there for a number of years,” says Gibbs.

• Snakes Are Predators in General: “We don’t protect non-predators and destroy predators,” says Gibbs. “That was something that was done many years ago, and we’ve learned that it’s much better to have the entire ecosystem, including predators and prey, and that’s what we strive for on parkland.”

• Black Snakes Mutate: “A black snake is a black snake and would not attract other species of snakes, necessarily,” says Gibbs.

• British Settlers Had It Right: “In general there were often campaigns to eradicate predators,” says Gibbs. “Again, that was kind of the old way of thinking. Now we’re returning wolves to the wild, mountain lions to the wild, recognizing that they’re part of a healthy ecosystem.”

So it looks as if Zeas isn’t getting too far with the parks people.

But what about his state senator? “Snakes aren’t something that normally fall to the legislature,” says David Brewster, a staffer for Sen. Frosh.