In South Florida, cane toads are so numerous that they seem to be dropping from the sky. They're overtaking parking lots and backyards, can weigh almost six pounds, and pack enough poison to kill pets. Why the surge?
America seen from a satellite at night blooms with lights, up one coast, down the other, and all across the middle. If you focus on the lights of South Florida and then move in closer on a metro area—say, Naples or Miami or West Palm Beach—and then zoom in on a particular mall or commercial strip or residential area, and then on a particular streetlight, and then on the illuminated circle that the streetlight throws on the ground, you may see some frog-like shapes. Go in as close as you can, down to the round, black, gold-flecked eye of one of those shapes, in which the light above it is a pinpoint blue reflection. You are eye-to-eye with a cane toad, one of the most successful invasive species on the planet.
Cane toads flock to lights. Across South Florida, in all kinds of man-made places, they appear on warm evenings. A bug drawn to the glow hits the glass and falls; a cane toad snaps open its wide mouth and gloms the bug with a long, adhesive, party-favor-like tongue. The toad’s mouth closes.
All amphibians are carnivorous, but cane toads stretch the description. Besides insects, they vacuum up snakes, worms, grubs, snails, mice, small rats, bats, young birds, other amphibians (sometimes their own young), pet food, and garbage.
Multiply that cane toad, and the two dozen or so others in its vicinity, by a whole lot of South Florida streetlights. Is this an oncoming ecological disaster? Experts on invasive wildlife don’t know. None can say for sure how many cane toads the state has already. Nor can they estimate how much or how quickly the cane toad population will expand. The phenomenon of the cane toads may be news to the rest of the country, but to South Floridians it’s not. Consider the classic toad facial expression, the humorless, fake-sleepy look most species have. Cane toads are like that, only super-intense; behind their deadpan demeanor, the fierceness with which they want to live and make more cane toads is almost sublime. Cane toads happen to thrive best in close vicinity to humans, and of course the number of humans in Florida is likely to increase. So yes—in the future, there will be more cane toads.
What it’s like in some places right now: Step out of your house in the morning and cane toads are squatting on the front walk. They are in the garage in the coils of the garden hose. They climb up the screen on your lakeside cabin’s front door to get closer to the outdoor light. They are in your window wells and by the hot tub on the patio and next to the swimming pool filter motor. They sit and look at you as if you owe them money; a creepy shiver excites your shoulder blades.
Cane toads have these things going for them: they are bigger than other toads (the biggest cane toad on record weighed 5 pounds 13 ounces, almost as much as a Kalashnikov rifle); they lay huge numbers of eggs, perhaps 30,000 in a breeding season (the southern toad, a species they appear to be displacing in Florida, lays about 4,000); and they are highly poisonous (their venom, carried in glands in their shoulders, kills animals, and could kill a person, though so far no Floridian is known to have been poisoned by it).
On top of all that, they can eat almost anything. All amphibians are carnivorous, but cane toads stretch the description. Besides insects, they vacuum up snakes, worms, grubs, snails, mice, small rats, bats, young birds, other amphibians (sometimes their own young), pet food, and garbage. They differ from most other frog species in that they can identify food that is not moving. Cinnamon Mittan, a graduate student who has done field work on cane toads, told me that once, behind a Home Depot in Florida City, she saw a cane toad sitting in a pizza box and eating the cheese off a slice.
Cane toads originate from South and Central America, with a natural range extending as far north as southern Texas and as far south as central Brazil. They were once thought to be seaside animals, hence their scientific name, Rhinella marina. They are also called marine toads or giant toads. Many Floridians call them bufo toads. In the jungles of Suriname and Costa Rica, they inhabit open areas at the edges of thicker vegetation. The only person I know who has encountered cane toads in their original habitat says that the ones she saw were hanging out by the lodge. In the 1920s, agricultural scientists introduced them to sugarcane fields in Puerto Rico, where they ate beetles and seemed to reduce crop destruction. They’ve been deployed around the world for pest control.
Florida’s cane toads are believed to descend from escapees from an exotic-animal importer at the Miami airport, where a hundred of them got away in 1955. Earlier introductions in the state, evidently for use in cane fields, seem to have failed, although genetic studies will determine if the current population comes only from the 1955 group. Perhaps surprisingly, there is a demand for cane toads as pets. The appeal is the toads’ cuteness and their appetite. If given enough food, they can become so fat they’re almost spherical. When they get to know you, they can be winsome and cuddly. They’re easy to care for. All they need is a terrarium, water, and dry dog food.
Kevin, a former Marine who lives in a suburban development in Palm Beach County and has never told me his last name, says he prefers to have a more conventional pet. His three-year-old brown and black Yorkshire terrier, Sophie, weighs six pounds “but doesn’t know she doesn’t weigh 200,” he told me. “She will take off after dogs twenty times bigger than her and run them out of the dog park.”
One afternoon, Kevin went into his backyard and saw Sophie worrying something in her mouth. Looking closely, he identified it as a cane toad. She thought he wanted to play and went romping around the backyard, chewing on the toad and not letting him have it. He freaked out, knowing how poisonous the toads are. Finally, he got the toad away from her and washed her mouth thoroughly with the hose, careful that none of the water went down her throat, following the instructions of toad-poison advisories. Then he drove Sophie to the veterinarian.
The cane toad’s poison—a white, viscous substance like marshmallow topping—is a complex chemical that affects the heart. The toads do not squirt it but rather secrete it from their shoulder glands when attacked or roughly handled. Dogs and other animals that get it in their mouths salivate, cry, and rub at their foaming tongues with their paws. Their gums turn bright red. Soon they may go into convulsions and die.
Maria Chadam, a veterinarian in Delray Beach, has been practicing in South Florida for 11 years and has treated dozens of dogs for cane toad poisoning. She has seen several dogs die of it. Chadam is a pretty, dark-eyed woman with a straightforward manner and a zeal for telling people about the danger. “Toad envenomation kills lots more small dogs than big ones,” she said when I met up with her at a coffee place in Delray Beach. “Bigger dogs can absorb the poison better, but in small dogs like terriers it works fast. It’s horrible for owners to watch a dog die of it. The poison’s main components are biogenic amines and steroid derivatives that produce muscle spasms, constrict blood vessels, and cause heart arrhythmia. The treatment is a combination of drugs, including propranolol and atropine, to stabilize the heart and stop the salivating, along with a sedative. Usually, the dog can be saved if we get it quickly enough.”
She went on: “For some reason, cane toads are really attractive to dogs. I have a coonhound, and she loves to track them through the grass. I think they must have a scent that’s intriguing—it may be sweet or smell like meat. The toads are less of a danger to cats. I don’t want to generalize, but cats are more cautious—OK, smarter—than dogs. Some dogs have repeat encounters with cane toads and never learn. I’ve treated several dogs for toad poisoning more than once. The best rule for everybody is to keep your pets away from all toads.”
Sophie, the Yorkshire terrier, did make it to the vet in time. As other terriers have done, afterward she remained aggressive and un-wised-up about cane toads. Their numbers in Kevin’s neighborhood kept on increasing.
Audrey Wilson is a 26-year-old biologist who has traveled the steppes of Mongolia, studied the social behavior of owl monkeys in the forests of Argentina, and worked as an intern burning invasive grasses in Arizona’s Saguaro National Park. She attended the University of Florida, in Gainesville, where she wrote her master’s thesis on cane toads. Her question to be determined was whether the cane toads are moving into wild and undisturbed natural areas. Wilson is slim and tanned, and in the field she restrains her mop of curly dark hair with a multicolored woven head wrap. Her T-shirt, cargo pants, and running shoes get drenched when she has to wade through swampy parts of the Florida outback, a common occurrence that does not faze her.
In midsummer she was staying in a tent in a campground in the town of Sebring, about two hours southeast of Tampa. One morning I met her for breakfast in a Sebring café, and she explained the project. Her equipment consisted of listening devices that record sounds at regular intervals. She had put them out in the bush four months earlier, and they had been compiling data since. After retrieving the devices, which she called “frog loggers,” she would upload their data into a program that scans it to detect the unique mating call of the cane toad. From the number of calls, she could estimate the number of cane toads in a particular area. If the toads were, in fact, invading these places, that’s bad for the amphibians that they may displace and for the predators that might eat them and die—a potentially serious problem in the fragile wild parts of the state.
Wilson set out for the backcountry and I accompanied her, sometimes riding along in her lab’s pickup truck, sometimes following in my rental car. On foot she led the way through scrub country where wild hogs burst from the palmettos, and along canals in failed real estate developments that had reverted to wilderness, and onto the dock of a local colleague with shoreline property. Often the temperature was pushing 100. She hiked through sand, and took paths cut up by hog rooting, and ducked under barbed wire, and crossed pastures and hammocks. With tools from a little kit she had received for her high school graduation, she unscrewed each device from the pine tree or cypress or other upright object to which she had attached it and then stuffed it in a backpack and carried it out.
Two days of this exercise put us in the vicinity of Naples, where at the end of the second day we drove to a commercial strip and had dinner at a Chili’s restaurant. The sun was low in the sky when we went in, and it had set by the time we left. Cane toads emerge in greatest numbers after sunset. When we walked out the door of the Chili’s, they suddenly sprang from our feet on either side. Beneath the landscaped hedges, facing the restaurant’s brightly lit-up walls, toads waited like basketball players boxing out for a rebound. They sat in crowds by the door and along the grass borders. In scattered profusion, they clustered around the screened-off dumpsters where Chili’s puts its garbage.
During our backcountry treks, we had noticed all kinds of wildlife—whitetail deer, a leatherback sea turtle, an alligator, black racer snakes, red-shouldered hawks, quail, ospreys, night herons, a swallow-tailed kite, and a green tree frog that jumped suddenly out of some leaves onto Wilson’s bare collarbone without causing her to scream or even start—but not one cane toad. She had wanted me to hear a cane toad’s call, the sound that is the basis of her study, but none had presented itself. Then, in the Chili’s parking lot, she stopped. “That’s it!” she said. “That’s a cane toad calling.”
In Australia, dogs have become addicted to mouthing the toads and getting high from the venom. There are even said to be humans Down Under who boil the toads and drink the broth, with all kinds of psychedelic and horrible consequences.
We followed the sound through a thin border of trees and into the next parking lot, which connected to a shopping mall. Near the parking lot’s entrance was a long ditch with water in it. Male cane toads call to attract females, and when a female shows up the male gets on her back in a position called amplexus. The inner sides of a male’s thumbs, called the nuptial pads, are black and sticky and help him hold on. She then exudes the eggs into the water in long strings as he fertilizes them. The call of the cane toad has been described in a field guide as “a low-pitched, slowly pulsed, rattling trill.” Some have compared it to an idling diesel engine.
The toad kept calling. Wilson listened. The sound seemed to come from the far edge of the ditch. The night was quiet, with the usual passing traffic. A light breeze stirred. The ditch held the reflection of a glowing Walmart sign, blue and red and white, its lettering backward and rippling on the surface. From somewhere near the reflection the toad called again. To me the trill resembled the staccato rhythm of a starter motor before the engine kicks in. Had I not been told otherwise, I would have been certain I was listening to a machine.
> Cane toads have almost no fear. Sitting in exposed places does not seem to make them nervous. In downtown Sebring on a summer night, at a gleaming white apartment building whose name, the Fountainhead, stretched across its multistory front in script lettering, the silhouette of a large cane toad could be seen under a hot white light next to the building’s entry. Up the street, toads hopped around the Jack Stroup Civic Center and the public library. By the library door, a flagpole held an American flag—at half-mast, because of a recent mass shooting. Lights in a concrete base shone upward at the flag. A group of seven or eight toads had gathered on the base around the footings of the lights.
Using my flashlight in a lakeside park nearby, I observed toads in the cement-lined creekbed, along the paths, in the playground. Young people and not-so-young people suddenly popped up around me, staring at their phones and walking like zombies. One guy noticed my light and inquired if I was looking for my car keys. He said he and his friends were trying to catch Pokémon characters. He asked what I was doing and I told him. “Why are you looking for toads?” he said, mystified.
> Another night, in Belle Glade, one of Florida’s more run-down cities, the parking lot of a Winn-Dixie supermarket was lit up and empty. I strolled the multi-acre expanse, nosing around the hedges in the parking dividers. No toads. Then I walked toward a far area of the lot where a streamlet from the drainage pipe coming down from the massive AC unit on the store’s roof continued across the pavement. Near the flow squatted a female cane toad the size of a dessert plate. Her mouth, an inch and a half across, had an insect leg sticking out of it. I picked her up. Her skin was dry, soft, and not unpleasant to the touch, like a well-worn baseball glove.
I avoided touching the poison glands, but the toads don’t secrete their venom unless they’re frightened. Even if the poison had gotten on my hands, I could have rinsed it off without harm. Cinnamon Mittan told me that she once got venom in a cut; it hurt horribly but caused no other symptoms. Without complaint, this monster of the Winn-Dixie accepted being handled. I set her back on the pavement, and she slowly and massively hopped away.
> At a 24-hour Walgreens in Belle Glade, well into the night, toads sprang from my feet when I stepped out of the car. Along the curb leading to the drive-through window, 12 or 15 toads stood in a row. I walked next to the curb and they hopped along the wall, bumping up on it, until they reached a crack in the cement and dove in. My flashlight picked up toads packed in tightly—an eye here, a foot there.
The following morning, I talked to a daytime manager at the store. “No, we don’t do nothin’ about the toads,” she said. “Exterminators put out poison for the rodents, but it don’t affect the toads. Certain times they just come out and be everywhere, like when the farmers are burnin’ the cane fields. I’ll be honest with you, I’m afraid of ’em.”
“The toads don’t harm nobody. They got a right to live,” said a young woman employee standing nearby.
Kevin, the former Marine, would take exception to that. Night after night, the later the better, he walks his neighborhood and shoots cane toads using a CO2-powered pellet pistol with a flashlight mounted on the barrel. He began the hunts before his dog’s close call and has killed hundreds since. Wanting to spread the news about the cane toad problem, he let me come along on a windy, full-moon night. I met him just before ten in front of his house. The development was upscale, with royal palm trees of an ancient Egyptian forcefulness dominating the neatly landscaped yards, and big houses sitting close to one another as if on a Hollywood soundstage. Kevin has a square face and a friendly, businesslike manner, and he wore a T-shirt, shorts, running shoes, and a black baseball cap with the logo of the Sooners of Oklahoma University.
The first toad we saw was little, and Kevin spared it because at that size it’s hard to tell a cane toad from a southern toad. The next was bigger, and definitely a cane toad, without the southern toad’s prominent ridge between the eyes. A sharp zap from the pistol and the toad flopped dead. Kevin pulled on blue plastic surgical gloves and put it in a double plastic bag. A neighbor came out with a phone at her ear and said, “Kevin? I’m talking to my friend across the street, and she says there’s a man with a flashlight in her yard.” Kevin explained that he was shooting toads, and the woman encouraged him to kill all he could. She said there were some big ones by the basketball pole in her driveway.
In fact there were. They made a break for it, and Kevin concentrated on the biggest, which accomplished several quick, long hops until it came up against the garage door, which it bumped into repeatedly. Then it turned and lunged for the SUV parked nearby. Two shots hit the toad before it could get under the vehicle. It went under anyway, flinging its arms and legs like a human. When it flopped out the other side, and several shots finished it off, its back was white with venom.
Two neighbors sitting on a stoop cheered Kevin on as we passed by. Otherwise the houses kept to themselves, the blue glows from screens filling windows here and there. The pellet pistol stopped working, and several extra-large toads got away. By the end he had shot and retrieved four toads, which he laid on top of a transformer. They were several pounds in all, a lot of toad mass. He said, “This works out perfectly, because I’ll drop them in the trash, and garbage pickup is tomorrow.”
I asked if he knew about the practice of putting toads in the refrigerator and then the freezer to euthanize them. He said, “I hear that’s what they do in Australia. But then they don’t have guns in Australia. Didn’t the Australians give up their guns sometime back in the 1990s?”
No country has a cane toad infestation worse than Australia’s. A scientist brought around 100 of them to the northeastern part of the country in 1935, during a rough time for Australian sugarcane farmers, when beetles were wiping out their crop yields. The farmers welcomed the toad as a savior. It made no dent in the beetles, however, because of their habit of frequenting parts of the cane stalks above its reach. Development of an insecticide controlled the bugs, but nothing could rein in the now superfluous toads. In 82 years, they have spread across the northern part of Australia, along the coast and into the interior. All that appears likely to stop them from occupying the entire country is the fact that much of the interior is dry, and Australia is less warm in the south than in the north. Amphibians need to keep moist, and cane toads seem unable to tolerate prolonged periods of temperatures colder than about 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
Much oddness and cultural change has accompanied the Australian toad invasion. Two excellent documentaries, Cane Toads: An Unnatural History and its sequel, Cane Toads: The Conquest, both by filmmaker Mark Lewis, tell this story. People write songs about the toads or make tableaux with toads they have stuffed. Snakes and crocodiles, having had no past experience with toads of any kind, eat them and die. A man electrocutes himself when he slices a power cable while trying to jab a metal spear into a cane toad. There are Aussie cane toad lovers and very many virulent Aussie cane toad haters. Methods of large-scale extermination fail. No one knows what to do.
How far the toads spread in the United States depends on how they adapt to cold.
Many Australians still do own guns. After a mass killing in 1996, a buyback program took in more than 600,000 automatic weapons, but that was only about a fifth of all the guns in Australia. If Australians want to shoot toads, they still can, but they will need a lot of ammo. Today the country has a population of about 24 million humans and an estimated 1.5 billion cane toads.
Morris Gleitzman, an Australian author of books for children between eight and twelve years old, has written the world’s only known works of cane toad fiction. His novels about anthropomorphic cane toads who go on various quests attract a wide following in Australia. “I’ve talked to thousands of schoolchildren in Australia about cane toads,” he said when I reached him at his home in Brisbane, “and I’ve had curly-headed moppets tell me how they nail cane toads to the garage door and cut their bellies open with daddy’s hardware knife and see if the entrails will stretch to the front gate. Usually, we teach children to respect living creatures, but with cane toads all bets are off. Darker impulses that society usually restrains are permitted to come out. It’s not healthy or helpful for us as moral beings.”
Reducing the toads’ powerful reproductive capacities through genetic modification or other methods may be the best way to slow them down. Recently, scientists at the Universities of Sydney and Queensland made a new trap for cane toad tadpoles that used the adult toads’ venom as an attractant. It caught 40,000 in a few days. If there’s any breakthrough in the cane toad situation, it will likely come from Australia.
How far the toads spread in the United States depends on how they adapt to cold. Cinnamon Mittan—whose name is pronounced with the accent on the second syllable of “Mittan,” which makes it less Christmasy but still memorable—is working on a Ph.D. thesis at Cornell University that examines their cold tolerance. Studies in Australia have shown that cane toads at the front line of the invasion seem to be evolving characteristics different from those of cane toads not at the front line. The front-liners develop longer legs, stronger leaps, and the habit of moving in straighter lines. That is, there seems to be a special type of pioneer Aussie cane toad, more athletic and bold than the cane toads that find a comfortable place to stay and don’t push on. Mittan’s thesis, based on research done in Australia at the University of Sydney, will try to determine if similar changes are taking place in Florida cane toads with regard to cold.
Aside from a few outliers, no cane toads have been found in Florida north of DeLand, a city about 45 miles north of Orlando. For her study, Mittan collected cane toads from the northern part of their Florida range and cane toads from the southern part and compared how each group reacted to cold. After getting them accustomed to a moderate temperature in a lab, she then subjected them briefly to colder conditions. She measured a toad’s ability to tolerate cold by noting whether, once chilled, it could still right itself after she had turned it upside down. Preliminary results seem to show that the northern group of toads can take cold better than the southern group.
I asked her whether it was possible that cane toads might keep evolving until they are able to live through subfreezing temperatures, the way toads in colder climates do. She said, “What we’re seeing here are mostly adaptive behavioral changes, not major evolutionary ones. Cane toads in the north of Florida get through cold spells by crawling into and under stuff and by stealing other animals’ burrows, and they also may become more tolerant of drops in temperature. But they haven’t changed to the point that they can survive for long below their critical thermal minimum of about 45 degrees.”
What about an amphibian like the wood frog, which can freeze nearly solid and survive? Might the cane toad ever do that? “That would require much more than adaptation; it would have to be a systemic physiological change, not something we’re likely to see in any measurable amount of time,” she said. “Right now the thing to watch is whether the cane toads will move into the Florida panhandle and up into Georgia. So far there’s no sign it’s happening, but it might. Establishing a species in a new environment usually takes a while, and an important part of stopping invasives is finding out early when they’re on their way.”
Rich in promise, sunshine, and deception, Florida extends its shaky gangway into the waters of the south, and lots of flora and fauna scramble aboard. As I traveled around the state, my interest in cane toads wasn’t everybody’s. But it did seem as if most people I talked to felt they were about to be overrun by something. A woman in Everglades City complained about the mangroves (which are native) taking over the city’s shoreline, and the Brazilian pepperbushes (which aren’t) colonizing her yard so that she could barely keep them back. Three men and two little boys fishing from a bridge in the Picayune Strand State Forest, near the Everglades, asked Wilson and me, when we stopped to talk, if we had seen any deer. We had, but none out there. The men then said that cougars—cougars!—had eaten up all the area’s deer, so there weren’t any more for the locals to hunt. The men wore Alabama Crimson Tide jerseys and seemed to resent the cougars especially for being from Texas. The newcomers were brought in to crossbreed with the threatened native Florida panther, whose fortunes they have revived.
As for the cane toads, these men brushed off any concern. “We got ’em all around in the neighborhood where we live. My dog hunts ’em,” one man said. “He’s a big dog, and the poison don’t seem to hurt him none. He comes back to the house, and he’s foaming at the mouth and shakin’ his head around. In a little while he’s all right again.” To myself I wondered if this might be a case of canine substance abuse. In Australia, dogs have become addicted to mouthing the toads and getting high from milder doses of the venom. There are even said to be humans Down Under who boil the toads and drink the broth, with all kinds of psychedelic and horrible consequences.
Venomous animals usually keep to their own sequestered haunts, in nature as well as in our imaginations. Animals that can poison your dog to death should not be at the Winn-Dixie.
Torpedo grass, lionfish, monitor lizards, Japanese climbing ferns, iguanas, Caesar’s weed, brown anoles, and (recently) the mosquito that carries the Zika virus—Florida is swarmed upon from land, sea, and air. At Highlands Hammock State Park, near Sebring, I happened on Andrew Dupuis, a park ranger for whom cane toads are just one of his worries. The Cuban tree frog, a large invasive whose aggressiveness calls into question the survival of several species of native Florida tree frogs, is common in the park, and Dupuis goes out looking for it. When he catches Cuban tree frogs, he puts them in a bag and removes them. He said that most of the fish in the waterways that run through the park are now jewel cichlids and other invasives from Africa. “Yesterday I picked up nine walking catfish that were walking out of our parking lot,” he said, imitating the fish’s elbow-crawl. The catfish are not native, either.
Probably the best known of Florida’s modern-day invasives, the Burmese pythons of the Everglades, also arrived via the pet trade. People rarely see the pythons, and scientists are still learning about their secretive lives in the swamps. Their huge effect on the ecosystem can be inferred from the drop in the Everglades’ small-mammal population, but their physical, visible appearance occurs mainly on the rare occasions when one is run over on a road.
Far more resources go into studying the pythons than into studying cane toads, according to Steve Johnson, associate professor in the department of wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of Florida. “The fact is that the cane toads will affect the general public a lot more than the Burmese pythons ever will,” he said. “Most Floridians will never encounter a Burmese python in the wild, but the toads are widespread and quickly becoming more so, and they’re in areas where people live. We are past the point of getting rid of them. We’re in management mode now. Cane toads may not be able to attract the funding, but everyone in Florida could stand to be more educated about them.”
Crows, ravens, and blue jays sometimes learn to kill toads by turning them over and eating them belly first, thus avoiding the poison. Ants can get under them and consume them from that direction. However, these kinds of predation are rare. No expert I talked to has ever seen a wild animal attack a cane toad. As with many animals, humans are its default chief predator.
Given that situation, you would think there would be a lot of exterminators in Florida specializing in cane toads. In fact, all the exterminators I asked said they knew about cane toads and had received requests to remove them, but none actually did that work. The consensus among them was that nobody knew how to get rid of cane toads; killing a bunch of them almost never meant that they had been removed. A pest-control service manager I met said, “If you don’t want cane toads getting in your house, make sure your porch screens don’t have holes in them. That’s about all you can do. There’s no poison for them that I know of. In fact, they make it hard sometimes for us to use these bait stations we put out for rats and mice. The toads will go in the bait-station door and eat the poison bait, which has no effect on them because it’s designed for warm-blooded animals. Then more toads will pack in there until it’s so full no more can fit in. When I open the bait station to check it the toads all come out, doing just fine.”
The State of Florida has no program to control cane toads. It merely advises people on the most humane way to euthanize them—the refrigerator-to-freezer method. As with other invasives, the state does not have any laws at all restricting the taking of them. You can do anything you want to cane toads, at any place or any time. Every man’s hand is against them. For me that gives them a kind of perverse cool. They are outlaws, at once set-apart, sociopathic, and holy.
When Audrey Wilson returned to Gainesville after retrieving her frog loggers, her own pet cane toads were doing fine. She has two—D.W. and Arthur. Arthur had grown quite large on the dog-food diet, while D.W. seemed not to like the dog food and had stayed about the same. Even among high-appetite invasive toads, there’s no accounting for taste. At the university’s biology labs, using a program to scan for cane toad calls, she examined the recordings made by all 33 of her frog-logger devices. The results showed a clarity and starkness uncommon in scientific inquiry.
The frog loggers she had put in the natural areas—in the far-flung hammocks and palmetto scrub country and Everglades swamps—had recorded no cane toads.
These findings reinforced the results of her research from the previous year, when only a single cane toad was heard in natural areas. That toad was near an Everglades campground and may have been a hitchhiker, she believes. Further, the frog loggers she had left in 2016 in man-made places—the ones we had picked up from recreational lakeside settings, and those from a golf course and other suburban places in Tampa—recorded many cane toad calls. “Basically, this is good news,” Wilson informed me over the phone. “It means that the cane toads are not moving into wilderness or other undisturbed areas, which gives those species that they have impact on, such as southern toads, plenty of places to escape to. This also means the toads are not poisoning predators in the still-natural parts of the state.”
As had been suspected, cane toads prefer lawns and shopping centers to swamps and woods. They like our fast-food restaurants and ongoing sprawl as much as we do. In a way it’s kind of flattering. But it’s also weird. You’re just not supposed to have toads all over the place. This should be self-evident from the aesthetics of it, and from the uncanny feeling you get when you see a whole bunch of them under a city streetlight. Venomous animals usually keep to their own sequestered haunts, in nature as well as in our imaginations. Animals that can poison your dog
to death should not be at the Winn-Dixie.
In my mind, I sometimes go back to the Walgreens in Belle Glade and the toads waiting along the curb by the drive-through prescription window. If I pulled up to that window with some illness at ten o’clock at night, the sight of a welcoming party of cane toads on the curb would not make me feel better. Things are getting away from us. What do we do about tomorrow? Florida will become hotter, as will everyplace else, and then why wouldn’t the toads move north? At the moment, the lighted scoreboard seems to read: advantage toads.