Fleeting Wonders: A Rat Snake in a Courthouse - Atlas Obscura
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Fleeting Wonders: A Rat Snake in a Courthouse

An Eastern rat snake, blissfully unaware of the million-dollar lawsuit it’s caused. (Photo: John Mikesell/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Hopefully there aren’t too many ophiophobes in the jury on the day Jeff and Jody Brooks show up to court, because it looks like they’ll be bringing a live snake with them—an Eastern rat snake, to get specific.

In December 2014, the Brooks bought a seemingly pleasant house in Beechwood, Maryland. By May, they were suing $1.5 million over an infestation of snakes slithering through tunnels in the insulation stretching all the way between the basement and the roof. After spotting at least eight snakes, which grow to around seven feet long, the couple accused the real estate agent of knowingly selling them a place teeming with serpents. The agent, Barbara Van Horn, has denied the allegations.

Since then, the Brooks have moved out. Meanwhile, both sides of this battle have sought out snake experts to testify on their behalf and to solve the question of whether Van Horn was aware that the house is a winter snake den, or hibernaculum.

Here’s your evidence. (Photo: D. Gordon E. Robertson/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0)

This is the trial of the decade for animal enthusiasts, who can tune in for university biology professors detailing the food and lifestyle habits of the rat snake. Was the house a regular snake hub, or were some of them just passing through? Rat snakes often seek shelter in cozy homes, and are commonly found in Maryland lodgings. 

However, Van Horn’s biologist and expert witness seems to face a losing battle. Families who rented the house before the Brooks moved in reported their own discoveries of snakes, snake skins, and snake feces. One of the previous tenants even called it the “snake house” (otherwise known as Slytherin?). 

Rat snakes come in different patterns, thrive in a number of habitats, and like to burrow, climb, and swim. They eat small rodents, frogs, and even birds, and when frightened, will simply freeze in place. Rat snakes aren’t venomous, and they aren’t out to harm, so really, they’re just quiet, benign guests. Maybe folks should be flattered when their houses are chosen as hibernaculums.  

As for whether a snake shows up in trial, it’s up to the judge what can be brought into court as evidence. Here’s to hoping he or she is an animal enthusiast. 

Every day, we track down a fleeting wonder—something amazing that’s only happening right now. Have a tip for us? Tell us about it! Send your temporary miracles to edit@atlasobscura.com.