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A Slug's Life

Annual Slugfest slides into Hidden Pond Nature Center.

Sunday was a good day to be a slug.

It was, however, a bad day for Captain Salty, otherwise known as Shaun Henson, who greeted visitors to Slugfest with a chant of "Down with Slugs!" and "Salt them all!"

"I'm anti-slug," said Henson, as were the two younger pirate costume-wearing boys carrying protest signs. "Slugs ruined my garden and ate my tomato plants. Slugs are evil and promoting them is a bad idea."

For four years, Captain Salty has warmly welcomed visitors to Hidden Pond Nature Center's Slugfest, which celebrated its 15th year on Sunday. He's under the eye of Lindsay Kozikowski, a Fairfax County Park Authority employee at the nature center whose job it is to make sure "everything is under control" with Salty and his crew.

"Slugs are a good food source for animals like box turtles and some snakes," said Kozikowski, trying to convince Captain Salty that slugs have every right to live. "As long as they're under control, they won't be too much of a pest. I don't like advocating salting slugs, but I understand  [the protester's] concerns."

Captain Salty got what was coming to him later in the afternoon, as children lined up to throw 'slug slime' at him — in reality clear, unflavored gelatin — as punishment for his anti-slug ways.

WEARING A bright yellow dress with fluorescent flowers on it, Allison Van Gilst made her rounds as the royal Slug Queen, complete with a tiara featuring one of her slimy subjects across the jewels.

"I'm handing out candy and later I'll make a proclamation," she said. "It' a lot of fun. Slugfest is something different and people really like the atmosphere."

Van Gilst also had to make sure none of the slugs, handed out to children as pets and placed on spoons for races, were hurt during the afternoon's festivities.

"I don't think people really want to watch other people eat slugs," she said.

But one park employee, John Lewis of Springfield, pushed that boundary as he tried, for the fourth consecutive year, to beat his own record for how many slugs he could have in his mouth at one time. Last year, he broke the record with 36 slugs.

"I think today it was 46 slugs," he said, a proud grin on his slug-free face. "It feels the same as having a slug on your hand, except it's in your mouth. I don't think I've actually eaten a slug yet, but I did eat a snail earlier today."

Lewis said he learned of his talent a few years ago when he read about someone putting 11 live slugs in their mouth and he knew he could do better. Since then, he's constantly asked if he's ever tried out for "Fear Factor," a popular reality show in which contestants are tested by several gross stunts, worm and slug eating alike, in order to win money.

"Kids get really grossed out by it," Lewis said. But his favorite event of the afternoon is usually the play, which always has a slug theme.

Mike McCaffrey, assistant manager for the nature center, said Slugfest started as a way to attract visitors to Hidden Pond, a "more urban" and smaller nature center than many of its counterparts throughout the county.

"Slugfest is the longest continously active program at Hidden Pond," he said, having only been canceled once, due to Hurricane Isabel. "We wanted to do something different in the fall other than Halloween stuff. One of the staff members here brought up something she'd read about slugfests out west, but those were geared more toward adults."

The family-friendly Slugfest is the most popular event at Hidden Pond during the year, he said, with an attendance estimated between 150 and 175 participants this year.

One of the most well-attended events of the day is the annual play, based on a popular movie or television show and re-crafted to include slimy protagonists.

"This year's play was based on the Andy Griffin Show," he said, with Mayberry changed to Tayberry and Aunt Beeswax replacing Aunt Bea. Last year's play, "The Slime of Music" joined "Crouching Slug, Hidden Salt" and "Slug Pirates of Suburbia: Curse of the Hidden Salt Shaker" as crowd favorites, McCaffrey said.

The play this year told the story of a small town whose settlers had eaten slugs to stay alive. The town's mayor had changed the name of the town to Tayberry after planting a crop on his farm, but many of the residents became angered and planned a slimy coup to return the town to its original glory honoring its true namesake.

Without slugs, there would be no fireflies, said professor Clarissa McSnails, better known as Clara Ailes, a staff member at the nature center during her slug lesson.

"Slugs help move spores and other plant seeds when they become stuck in their tube foot," she told a crowd of about 40 wide-eyed children. "Native Americans used their slime to help heal insect bites."

She explained that salt kills slugs by forcing them to create too much slime which dehydrates them. "If you're going to kill a slug, put out a beer," she said. "At least that way they'll go happy."

Ailes had collected over 70 snails to be given out to children for Slugfest. "Children can take the slugs home as pets, that's why we hand out information on how to take care of them," she said.

A SLUG SURVEY and recipes were also handed out at the end of her presentation because, "with enough wine and garlic, anything can taste good," Ailes said with a laugh.

Northern Virginia is home to two major types of slugs, she said, gray slugs and the native tawny slugs. The gray slugs have no natural enemies in the area and are more common, but both are helpful to plants and flowers alike.

Slugfest wouldn't be complete without the Slugianapolis 500, a race in which five slugs competed to see which would be able to slither from the black middle of a circle to the far side of its white outer boundary. Dozens of children participated in several heats until finally a winner was crowned. Children also had the chance to toss large plastic slugs in a game similar to horseshoes, get their faces painted and create slugs and snails out of modeling clay.