Debbie Miller is afraid of snakes.
So when a venomous copperhead first showed up outside her home in the Chesapeake Ranch Estates neighborhood in Calvert County, it was not a welcome visitor. Nor was she happy when she spotted the snake under her car in the driveway. Or when it slithered through her son's legs while he was standing near a rotting poplar stump.
"We've been very frightened," said Miller, 44, who is retired. "When my son's out cutting the grass, he's scared to death."
Miller said her husband had tried to kill the copperhead with a shovel, but the lethal snake just snapped at the shovel and escaped. This was obviously a job for a professional.
Enter Terry Sunstone: trapper, woodsman and wildlife problem-solver extraordinaire.
Sunstone, 56, a burly, bearded man who has operated his Animals Only Wildlife Control business from Prince Frederick for the past nine years, showed up at Miller's home Thursday afternoon. In a matter of minutes, Sunstone had slung a chain from his truck to the stump, where he believed the copperhead was living, and ripped it out of the ground. He spotted the 20-inch intruder instantly, grabbed his metal snake tongs and nabbed it before it could dart away. With a flourish, he pulled off his gloves, pinched the snake's head and proudly showed off its glistening fangs.
"Check it out: little hypodermics," he said.
"Oh my," gasped Miller.
"Pretty though, aren't they?" he said.
"I don't know how you do this," she said, recoiling from the snake. "But I'm glad you do."
Sunstone concedes that trapping and capturing animals in people's homes and businesses can be "dirty, stinky, nasty work," but he loves it just the same. A self-taught naturalist, avid hunter and fisherman, Sunstone is on-call 24-hours a day for any animal emergency. He has trapped all manner of beasts and vermin, including rats, bats, raccoons, lizards, rabbits, squirrels and skunks, and he has the battle scars to prove it.
About four years ago, he was bitten on the index finger by a baby copperhead that was living among the controls of a swimming pool cover in St. Leonard. His whole arm swelled up, turning black and blue. The finger still goes numb whenever the weather turns cool. Last February, he fell off a roof while trying to trap a raccoon in Drum Point in Calvert County. That fall shattered his fibula. But the worst experience might well have been the skunk in St. Mary's that sprayed him in the face.
"My instinct was to close my eyes, but I opened my mouth, and some got in. . . . I was shoving dirt and leaves in my mouth, trying to get it out," he said. "It's enough to make you throw up."
Sunstone generally captures the animals alive and relocates them to remote swamps, forests or wildlife management areas. To catch them, he finds where the animals are getting into the house -- often loose shingles, small holes in the siding or cracked vents leading to appliances -- and sets his metal cage-traps just outside the entrance. He baits the cages with peanuts, cat food, even raccoon urine. When an animal is living behind walls or under floors, he relies on his pet beagle, Lucy, to sniff out the critter.
"I like solving problems, answering questions," he said. "I've made a study of it all my life."
Sunstone grew up in Falls Church and Manassas before moving to Calvert County. After high school, he served in the Navy as a jet engine mechanic and later as a liquor wholesaler in Prince George's County. But he found the world of people and commerce a bit too "petty," so he decided to focus full time on the animal kingdom. In the warm summer months when the wildlife is frisky, Sunstone is at his busiest, traversing Southern Maryland in his white Ford truck on several jobs each day.
Standing in the sun on the gravel road in front of Miller's house, he interrupted his conversation to sample wild raspberries or point out a red-tailed hawk. He said he loves working outside, not having to answer to any boss.
After several minutes, with the copperhead safely bagged, Sunstone said he had to get going. There were groundhogs in Waldorf -- more work to be done.