The Artists, the Scientists, and the Toads (With a Call to Action)

The Artists

Recently, at an animal refuge in rural Pennsylvania, I met up with Lisa Levinson, a member of the advocacy group known as Public Eye: Artists for Animals. The ground was sloppy, and we talked, in chilly clouds, about toads. Public Eye had produced a performance about respect for free-roaming animals, with a story about Philadelphia’s migrating toads. Levinson and other artists held the show at Green Woods Charter School, in the northwest part of the city, at Hagy’s Mill Road.

Every spring and summer, Levinson moonlights as a crossing guard for toads determined to pass over that road.

Beginning in late March, American toads (Bufo americanus) emerge from their woods and cross over Hagy’s Mill and Port Royal Roads or Eva Street, to get to the watery places where they meet and mate. Toads will migrate long distances to return to the fresh water in which they themselves were born — in this case, the water of the Roxborough Reservoir.

Photo by Janet Lippincott

By the time the early April showers arrive, as many as 250 toads might be on the move in a given hour.

“At first, the idea was to get drivers to wait for the toads to cross,” says local advocate Deanna Calderaio. “But drivers refused to stop. Without road closures, many of the toads, if not most, are crushed under cars.”

To protect the small migrants, Lisa Levinson and like-minded locals formed the Toad Detour Committee to divert traffic on the rainy evenings that toads select to set out on their journeys. The crossing guards have put together an alliance that includes the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, the Residents of Shawmont Valley Association, the Philadelphia Horticultural Society, the Fairmount Park Association, the Upper Roxborough Civic Association, the Philadelphia police and the city’s streets department.

When they spot the toads’ movement, Levinson and Calderaio will jump to their phones, alerting a list of about a hundred people — the nearest residents first.

Photo by Janet Lippincott

On the rainy day we spoke, Levinson told me — in the vivid way an artist can — what motivated the detour concept.

“Have you ever seen toads moving on a roadway at night? The road, if you look closely, will remind you of a war zone: dozens of little bodies, their faces contorted; their arms and legs twisted and frozen in death.”

“We can change everything if people can be reached at the right time,” says Levinson.

“Then we come out again in mid-June for the thousands of toadlets as they emerge from the Reservoir.”

The Scientists

Meanwhile, in Sydney, Australia, toads displaced from Central and South America are in a different kind of war zone. An Associated Press reporter explains: “The enemy? The cane toad. The weapon? Plastic bags full of carbon dioxide — long considered the animal-friendly alternative to whacking the creatures with golf clubs or cricket bats.”

The ancestors of the cane toads (Bufo marinus) were snatched in 1935 from their original habitats and dropped into Queensland, and expected to control beetles on the Australian sugar plantations. As the toads grew in numbers and their range increased, the people turned on them. They’re accused of carrying salmonella. They’re big. In addition to feasting on beetles, they can eat small reptiles, mammals, and birds. And the toxic glands of the tadpoles can kill their potential predators.

In recent years, the AP says, “Australians have held festive mass killings of the creatures, complete with sausage sizzles and prizes.” There’s an annual “Toad Day Out” when people gather to collect the toads and freeze them or gas them.

Lee Scott-Virtue, an archaeologist in Kimberley, Western Australia, founded the Kimberley Toad Busters to “mount a pre-emptive offensive across the border into the Northern Territory.” The group reportedly has thousands of volunteers, credited with gassing more than a half-million toads. But when officials showed that gassed toads regain consciousness after initially passing out, thus implicating Western Australia’s humane-killing legislation for vertebrates, the “Busters” were sent back to clubbing and hammering the animals to death. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals stands behind the hammering, provided the toads are first rendered senseless by being put into freezers.

If you’re appalled by any of this, just don’t tell Shane Knuth, a Queensland state legislator who’s positively patriotic about toad-killing: “The do-gooders need to see the painful death our native animals go through after coming in contact with a cane toad.”

Now, a new weapon is coming out of the lab. Most cane toads can’t run from insect attacks, so researchers from the University of Sydney’s School of Biological Sciences use pet food to show how native meat ants can be attracted and successfully deployed in the war on cane toads. For many toads, the death will be drawn out — all day long. But that must be OK; it’s science. The research of Rick Shine and colleagues, funded by the Australian Research Council and published in the February edition of the Journal of Applied Ecology, is meant to “form part of a multi-pronged attack on cane toads,” says Katie Szittner of the University of Sydney in Nature Environment News, “with low risk of collateral damage to native wildlife.” Just like the cane toads themselves, ants will be expected to deal with problems of our own making. And constantly, the terminology of war is employed.

“If we understand the vulnerability of the cane toad we can develop a number of combined tactics to combat this deadly invader,” says Professor Shine.

And going forth to conquer the “invader” (how quickly we forget that they were forcibly moved) is considered tantamount to activism. It’s “more than just pest control” said a commentator in Britain: “This is about a sense of community. Childhood memories. A determination to do your bit: ‘Where were you on Toad Day Out?’ is the question that will be asked decades hence.”

A Call to Action

Animal transporters brought cane toads to Florida as well, where people’s view of them is about the same.

“Cane toads have naturally evolved to live in the extreme south of Texas,” says Priscilla Feral, president of an animal refuge in San Antonio called Primarily Primates. “But in the 1950s and 60s, the toads were let loose in Florida — a state with a lucrative sugar industry. And in various places, people have acquired them as pets.”

As noted, the toads like pet food; a dish left outside will attract them. A cat or dog bites who one will get sick, so Floridians consider the toads a nuisance. Cane toads have also been known to kill local frogs and toads. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recommends that area residents kill them by smearing their bodies with benzocaine, freezing them for three days, and then discarding or burying their bodies.

“We’ve yet to learn from past mistakes and to stop introducing animals to places where they’ve not evolved to live,” Feral says.

What to do when the presence of introduced animals threatens native animals is among the hardest questions an animal advocate can face. Keeping native animals safe from the harms we create is an easier issue. Philadelphia’s Toad Detour Committee is showing a community how it’s done.

If you live in the Philadelphia area, consider coming to the orientation meeting on Sunday 7 March at 4-5pm in the Dick James Room at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, Hagy’s Mill Road. The group seeks help for the migrations in late March through April, and assistance during the emergence of the toadlets from the Reservoir in mid-June. RSVP to Lisa Levinson at gro.yllihpeyecilbupnull@asil.

Lee Hall teaches environmental law, and has authored several books and articles on animal rights, including the forthcoming on ,em>Their Own Terms: The Handbook. Animal Rights for the Classroom and the Community (2015). Lee has worked for 13 years in non-profit environmental and animal advocacy. Follow Lee on Twitter: @Animal_Law Read other articles by Lee, or visit Lee's website.

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  1. Ellie Maldonado said on March 7th, 2010 at 7:02pm #

    Thanks, Lee, and the Bravo Toad Detour Committee — what a great idea! I’m happy to know there are compassionate people who work collectively to save toads. This should be an example for saving other nonhumans as well.

    Sadly, there’s a stark contrast betwen the Toad Detour Committee and the celebrated mass killings in Australia and Florida. In the example of Lisa Levinson and Deanna Calderaio we can create options. Instead of collecting and killing toads, might they be relocated? That’s just one idea, and there may be others. The old adage comes to mind: “where there’s a will there’s a way”.