With the Maryland General Assembly heading into the final four weeks of its session, the rush for state money for "pork barrel" projects reverted to the law of the jungle today.
Members of the Senate's Budget and Taxation Committee, fond of intimidating politicians who come before them to plead for election-year favors for their home districts, are not usually at the mercy of the witnesses. But at today's hearing, as the panel faced the slithering maw of a 15-foot Burmese rock python, one senator jumped on her chair and another shrank nervously behind his desk. The scaly, greenish snake, shedding pieces of skin on the committee room floor, had been hauled into the room in a lime-green bag. Once freed, it was introduced to committee members in the arms of Baltimore Zoo Director Brian Rutledge and four helpers.
Behind Rutledge came other animal handlers carrying two alligators, an armadillo and a snake.
The point behind this display of animal power was to persuade senators that the Baltimore Zoo needs $1.3 million in state bond money to build a children's zoo. The budget committee, which last week finished chopping $46 million out of the state's $8 billion operating budget, cringed not only at the sight of the animals, but also at the idea of giving up the funds.
That is not to say the senators did not appreciate the zoo's inventive list of witnesses. Committee chairman Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery) had vice chairman Clarence Blount (D-Baltimore) run the hearing so he could use his video camera to tape the event.
Blount, however, started visibly when confronted with the snake, and jammed his hands into his pockets when handlers offered to let him pet it. Sen. Catherine Riley (D-Harford) climbed on her chair.
"Mr. director, we want to make sure when you leave you take everything with you that you brought in," Blount said to Rutledge.
Rutledge's 6-year-old son Aaron fearlessly helped his dad control the five-foot alligator as it squirmed on the witness table. Jennifer Cooke, the 7-year-old daughter of influential Baltimore lobbyist Ira Cooke, told the committee: "I know you have a lot of things to think about, but I hope you'll help."
The legislators, who frequently refer to bills of dubious intent as "snakes," did not miss the opportunity to make the connection.
"By heredity, Jennifer has learned to back snakes," Sen. Julian Lapides (D-Baltimore) said to the 7-year-old's father, who was watching protectively on the sidelines.
In one of the hearing's serious moments, Rutledge and zoological society board President Stuart Janney said the proposed $5.5 million children's zoo would be a statewide asset that deserves state funds to match an expected $1.3 million contribution from the city.
Children visiting the participatory zoo, Rutledge promised, would get to climb inside giant turtle shells and walk on oversized spider webs. "All of you who have kids know that's their favorite pastime, acting like animals," said Rutledge.