“There is no folly of the beast of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of man.”
— Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Day Thirteen. 11:40 a.m.
On hands and knees in the backyard, crawling through tough Bermuda grass, brandishing a stick of bamboo. A bucket trails behind. One step at a time, I tell myself. Just catch the damn thing first, the killing can come later. I swish the bamboo between inch-thick trunks of hibiscus, reaching the stick into the shadowy dark between the bright green hedge and sandy soil beneath. I am trying to flush a toad. Trying, being the operative word.
I crawl along, stiff grass poking the flesh of my knees as sweat drips from my nose, trickles down my thighs. I keep swishing the stick beneath the hedge, catching dark glimpses through the blaze of serrated green as he launches left, left, and left again, behind the hibiscus, skirting the cottage wall toward the rear of the property. Mosquitos pierce my skin, circle, then pierce again, leaving a constellation of welts on shoulders, calves, ankles. But I keep at it, crawling along, waving my stick, dripping sweat, itching. I’d prepared for this moment days earlier. I’d stowed the bucket and stick by the door. I’d been waiting. Watching.
We arrived in Florida two weeks earlier, having left northern California (Oakland, to be specific) at the lovely time of year approaching late summer, when days are warm and the light is golden and troops of “naked ladies” stand at attention in yards and parks and median strips, pointing their pink trumpet heads west toward the bay, which blows gusty and cold well past the orange-blue sunset fade, after which, finally, the winds die down and the cool feel of autumn infuses the night air and early sweetgum leaves drift to tap and rasp the sidewalks. We left there to arrive here, in southeast Florida (Delray Beach, to be specific), at the height of hurricane season in the midst of wet-dog summer six months long.
Day after day, ninety-plus degrees, ninety percent humidity. The sky looms with no hint of hill in sight. Tedious concrete. Sprawling blacktop. The sun burns with a weapon’s intensity. Puddles steam. Clouds swell and tower, tall and white and teeming, or surge low and gray across the sky, blankets of watery steel. Rain falls in fat drops that swirl and river, pooling streets and spilling from roofs as lightning flashes and thunder cracks and barrels across the flat land. I feel it in my gut, in my bones. The crack and boom and rumble. It startles. More than startles. It strikes fear. The humidity is unrelenting. A persistent steam bath. A fungus resembling ringworm has sprouted in my shoulders like mushrooms in dank forest loam. It’s now spreading across my back. The acerbic tang of mildew hangs everywhere. Mosquitos seek me with a vengeance I can only attribute to some primal urge for fresh blood. I am three-thousand miles from home. I am hunting a toad.
It began our final night in Oakland as I stuffed a few last items into the POD. A woman came to rifle through our curbside castings and as we exchanged neighborly pleasantries… yes, Florida… yes, our cats are in for quite a surprise… she said, Oh, do be careful, I hear there are poisonous lizards there! She went on at length about the horrors she’d heard, worried for our two cats, and reiterated before leaving, “I’m serious, do be careful.”
I wasn’t sure what to make of her. Poison lizards seemed the least of my concerns given the list of horrors I’d already catalogued. Man-eating alligators. Twenty-foot pythons. Death by lightning strike. Cat-5 hurricanes. Cracker Barrel. Confederate flags.
Still, that night, as we tossed and turned on the air mattress in our empty bedroom, I kept replaying her words, “Oh, do be careful.” And through the long flight the next day, both cats tucked in their carriers, safely stowed at our feet, one drugged and asleep because she panics at a pin-drop, the other attentive and excited as usual, I worried.
On a beach chair borrowed from my mother-in-law, in the middle of our empty living room (the POD will take weeks to arrive), I decide to investigate the “friendly” neighbor’s lizards. A few searches on my laptop turn up no poison lizards, but Florida seems to have something of a poison toad problem. Links to several local news stories fill my browser window. Devastated dog owners wanting to tell the tale of their beloved Otis or Daisy or Toast. Wanting to warn others of what could happen to them, to their beloved pets.
The culprit? Always the Cane Toad, a.k.a. Marine Toad, Giant Toad, Bufo Toad, or simply Bufo. What happens is the dog (or cat, presumably) grasps the toad in its mouth like a chew-toy. This prompts the toad to secrete a toxic milky fluid from glands on its shoulders which, when absorbed by the sensitive mouth tissues of the dog (or cat), results in drooling, crying, stumbling, seizure, and ultimately, if untreated, death.
A few headlines: Toxic Toads Put Pet Owners on Alert, Bufo Toad a Serious Threat to Pets, Poisonous Toad Plaguing Puts Pets in Peril! That last one kills me. The articles all advise, given the threat to domestic animals and native wildlife alike, that Cane Toads be caught when encountered and euthanized humanely. They suggest applying a 20% benzocaine gel to the toad’s belly and then placing the toad in a freezer for at least 48 hours. I’m serious.
I should say that Florida, even the idea of Florida, held zero appeal. I’d agreed to this “experiment” only for my husband’s sake. He’d been offered a promotion, a big one, complete with financial incentives which, I’ll admit, were appealing.
It was a unique opportunity, he said. And temporary, he added.
When I asked what temporary meant, he asked back, Three years?
When you are young, three years seems an eternity. When middle-aged, it’s a fraction of a fraction of your life. It seems doable. I’d had no gainful employment for two years and had just spent much of my savings on a mid-life MFA program in creative writing with no guarantee of gainful employment in the future. I knew there’d be tradeoffs, but I wanted to be a writer. I thought could write anywhere. Yes! I said, envisioning our stay in Florida as my own personal writing residency. Yes! I said to the land of Hemingway and Hurston, Hiaasen and Barry, Russell and Groff. Yes! I said, imagining completed manuscripts, fully fledged story collections, the many publication credits that would follow.
Bufo! It’s right there, in real life, squatting mid-patio next to the pool. It matches the pictures exactly. It’s the biggest toad I’ve ever seen, as big as a squirrel. I eye him through the hurricane-glass door. He is immobile as sculpture, a warty lump of mottled gray-brown, a stark form against the smooth beige pavers. He exudes a certain confidence and seems to be eyeing me back with an air of defiance. He is an invader. An unnatural presence. A killer of hapless chihuahuas and schnauzers, terriers and toy poodles. I know what must be done.
It is only later that I will realize how this toad, this poor ugly bufo toad, assumed the brunt of everything upsetting about my existence in Florida. My dislocation from home, from the place I’d settled decades earlier, the place I belonged. And my fears of an uncertain future in this unbearably hot wet ugly flat land. He became my white whale.
The Cane Toad (or Bufo Toad as it’s called in South Florida) is a large toad native to Central and South America. It is the largest toad species in the world, measuring up to nine inches long and weighing up to two pounds or more. It is the most widely dispersed toad species, having been introduced by well-intentioned agricultural men into fields of sugarcane all around the world.
Of course, it is now the Bufo Toads that have become the pest, voraciously consuming native frogs, lizards, snakes, small birds, garbage, pet food, and basically anything they can fit in their gaping mouths. Highly adaptable and with no natural predators, they reproduce with abandon and have spread throughout South Florida, both in agricultural regions, but also in suburban and urban areas where they thrive especially well. The same holds true elsewhere, having colonized some 130-plus countries and islands from Hawaii to Puerto Rico to Japan to Australia.
I wonder at the hubris of these Ag Men who believed with such certainty that they could import creatures from a disparate and dissimilar ecosystem and somehow expect to control the outcome. Then again, excess hubris is par for the course here in Florida, land of highest concentration of golf courses in the world.
Day Thirteen. 11:57 a.m.
Attempt at capture, failed. The bucket was too big. The toad, too tricky. I’d had him on the run, but he flung himself into the green island ficus behind the cottage and disappeared into its waxy depths.
South Florida was late to the development game, even into the 20th century, due to the difficulty of contending with the wetlands of its vast southern interior — approximately five thousand square miles of shallow, slow-moving water — the Everglades. But once Standard Oil tycoon Henry Flagler’s East Coast Railway was completed through to Miami in 1896, it was only a matter of time. Efforts to dredge and channel the water began soon after, but it was in 1948, when Congress passed the Central and Southern Florida Project, that the real Drain the Swamp campaign began.
In just a few decades, nearly half the water feeding the unique ecosystem of the Everglades would be diverted and channeled. Muck left in the wake of drained swamp was converted to vast agricultural lands, including fields of sugarcane. And east of these, toward the balmy Atlantic, real estate development boomed, propelling Florida to its place as the third most populous state in the nation (after only California and Texas). In just one hundred years, the state’s population has grown twenty-fold — a rate seven times the national average. Not unlike that of an invasive species.
I’ve been keeping steady watch. For those who’ve never had a pet, or aren’t “animal people,” as they say, I’m sure I seem insane. I’m okay with this. I feel no need to explain the obsessive love I have for my cats.
Our cats, my husband will remind me.
Yes, our cats, I will say back.
There’ve been no sightings since last week and I’m beginning to think this toad is on to me. I’m cranky. Distressed. I post my dilemma on Facebook and am surprised by how many people express interest. It seems there is no shortage of interest in poison toad predicaments, however inane. Everyone has an opinion. Some are surprising hostile. Tales of toads hurled over fences, shot with pellet guns, doused with salt, dunked in buckets of bleach. Friends and family seem more benevolent, writing: Why not just catch and release him down the street, and Do you even know it’s really dangerous? and Have mercy, he only has one life to live. These, I find less helpful.
Pepper, our black cat, is still in hiding. She spends entire days hiding beneath the bed. At the slightest disruption, say, a chair squeak on the tile floor or a knock at the door, she bolts for the laundry room, wedging herself into the three-inch gap behind the washing machine, where she stays for hours at a stretch.
But Pickle? The gray-and-white tuxedo who weighs just seven pounds? The runt of the litter whose size belies her fearlessness? She waits by the back door all day, every day, staring contemplatively through the hurricane glass, sitting upright and still like a little Buddha meditating upon her lack of freedom and the nature of suffering. I feel a certain guilt confining her this way, solely to appease my own fearfulness.
She has been remarkably patient, I think. So, despite my lack of toad-clearing success, I say, Okay… let’s do this.
I turn the handle. The seal of weather-stripping releases and a sucking noise whooshes and cold air rushes out the door. Pickle rushes out, too, prancing into the heat, sniffing reflexively every which way. She looks left, then right, then tiptoes across the patio to the jacuzzi to wrap herself against its shady side, sliding down to stretch her body long and flat across the hot paving stones. She lies there a long time while I watch.
We do this little routine each day. I watch ’til I grow tired of watching, or ’til the heat becomes unbearable (my T-shirt drenched), or ’til I feel a tipping-point-accumulation of guilt about how many boxes remain yet unpacked. I allow her this semblance of freedom.
Pickle has bored of our little dance. I open the door and watch in horror as she tears off for the rear of the property. I panic, running after her. Pickle! Pickle! Past the pool and Jacuzzi, past the papaya tree, past the row of hibiscus, skidding to a stop at the back corner of the cottage to find her standing still, delicately sniffing the patio pavers, curious and calm.
I stand there for a minute, observing her and her immediate surroundings, finding them benign, feeling a bit calmer, when a strange feeling comes over me, like a tingling awareness one might call premonition. I turn slightly to my right and look down, and there, right there, is the giant toad, huddled near the shady boots of the sabal palm just feet from where I stand. I can see his bumpy backside and muscled haunches and also that his head is tucked beneath a hood of leaf litter. I backpedal slow and silent, then bolt for Tupperware.
It’s hard to describe the thrill of the moments that follow. How I hesitate for what seems a long time, my heart pounding, the air hot and thick and buzzing around me, wondering how best to do it, how to approach, at what angle and from what distance. How to be as stealthy as possible but also fast enough to refuse any possibility of escape. Something, too, about the ability to control. To dominate or be dominated. Am I playing god? Conqueror? Is my cat any more native than this toad? After all, feral cats kill billions of native birds and mammals every year in the United States, and though my cats are not feral, they have been known to kill an occasional butterfly or mole or dragonfly or lizard or bird or mouse.
In the end, what surprises me is not how easy it is to trap the toad beneath my tortilla soup container. No. It is rather how, once I have him, he jumps with such ferocity, again and again and again. Without diminishment. How I have to balance two bricks on top of the container before I can pull my hand away, which has pressed with considerable force to counter his explosive and unceasing jumps. How, with each jump, he continues to assert how very much alive he still is. How very much alive he wants to remain. I snap a photo with my iPhone through the cloudy plastic, already imagining my post… Toxic Toad’s Reign of Terror Terminated. Tricky Toad Toppled by Tupperware!
I will look at this photo on my phone later, and again from time to time, and there will be things I can see in it that weren’t immediately visible to me in the adrenaline-fueled moments of capture. Like the tiny beads of milky white fluid that dot his shoulders, and how they remind me of the sticky white sap that oozed from plucked dandelion stems before I’d blow the planet of seed fairies to break apart and take off on the wind with a wish. Or the striking iridescence of his sleepy eye, how the green is flecked with gold and black, and how the lazy half-mast lid gives him a look of resignation, as though already reconciled to his confinement and fully understanding what his future will hold. And I will feel a little sad. Even though I didn’t do the deed myself, I did drive fifty-five minutes north to the wildlife refuge in Jupiter to deliver him to a practical man who’d taken pity on me to say, Yeah, you can bring it in… we’ll deal with it.
Later, my father wrote on Facebook, I’m so proud of you for not taking a life.
And I had had to respond, Dad, that toad was certainly going to die.
When a pair of Bufos mate, the female deposits long, gelatinous strands of eggs in whatever small body of water is available. During hurricane season there are many, including rainwater held in the curled crisp of a fallen royal palm frond. The eggs will number in the thousands (up to 30,000!), looking very much like tiny black pearls strung through slender translucent straws. Tadpoles the size of ladybugs will emerge one to two days later, and even these will be mildly toxic. Over the next two weeks, these water-borne pseudo-fish will morph into land-dwelling toads. Little toxic land-dwelling toads. And not unlike the thousands of sea turtle hatchlings scrambling for shore here each summer, only a fraction will survive. Perhaps one percent. Maybe fewer. Still… you can do the math.
In the days that follow, I will meet another Bufo, slightly smaller than the one dispensed with. This toad will appear, again, steadfast and still as sculpture on the small back patio behind the cottage as if I were trapped in some Groundhog Day déjà vu, and I will wonder if there is some lesson I have yet to learn. It is clear, though, that this is, in fact, a different toad. Another toxic toad.
I tell myself a little story. I tell myself that this is the first toad’s mate because this one strikes me as a tad depressed. As though she can’t fathom why Mr. McToady would have just off and left without a word. And I will feel sad again.
I will catch this toad, too, in a shoebox this time, and with surprising efficiency as I have now become adept at toad hunting. I will carry the box to the park next door, gently remove the lid and tip her into the shady litter of an ancient sea grape in the far corner of the park. I will snap a photo of her to document my progress. I will say I am sorry.
The rains will come. Again and again. A hurricane, too, headed straight for us, and we will prepare as best we can, which is not very well since we are more accustomed to earthquakes than hurricanes. We will batten down the hatches, as they say. We will rush to buy batteries and water, but the shelves will be empty so we will hunt for candles and fill the tub instead. We will help a neighbor with her clamshell shutters and lend our screw-gun to another further down. We will watch the Weather Channel nonstop and fear will stir in my stomach and creep to my chest, quickening my heart with imaginings of destruction and doom.
In the end, the hurricane will skirt the coast of Florida and slam the Carolinas instead, and we, and all our neighbors, though we will lose power for a few days, will say how lucky we were. We will all say this to each other. We were very lucky. And it will forge a bond, this averted disaster, between my neighbors and I, and this will seem a first step toward building something of a home in this hostile land.
The green iguanas are in our Bauhinia tree again, munching the tender round leaves. These, too, are non-native, and have become a menace, breeding in canals, eating and shitting indiscriminately. Power lines sag with thousands of European starlings. Burmese pythons slither the Everglades in numbers so distressing, Florida Fish & Wildlife holds a 10-day challenge each July where competitors vie to kill the biggest and greatest number of pythons for prizes up to $2,500. Exotic predatory lionfish terrorize local reefs. The list goes on. The Bufos are not alone in their territorial domination. We are here, too, of course.
I let Pickle out and follow her into the yard. The sun has grown prettier now, less harsh, more golden, and as we stroll the yard admiring the cut-out masks of philodendron, the slender papaya’s clutch of orange-green fruit, the jatropha tree’s pink-red blooms and the strikingly red hibiscus flowers, tiny toads — dozens of them — burst from the grass like popcorn popping. Pop-pop. Pop-pop-pop. They launch from the Bermuda grass, arcing past the tips of the blades to hover briefly, as though suspended, before dropping to vanish into the thick turf.
Some mornings, especially after heavy rains, I find little “floaters” along the pool’s edges. Their slender forearms skirt the water’s surface, stretching to touch the tile while their rear legs dangle submerged. Sometimes “riders” — little castaways aboard fallen Bauhinia leaves — drift in slow curves along the water’s surface. I bail them out with the skimmer as Pickle trails behind me sniffing the pool’s edge. They are everywhere, these tiny toads. And I have to admit, they are adorable. We scoop one into my husband’s palm. Smaller than his pinky nail, it’s hard to imagine this tiny creature will one day weigh two pounds and have the power to kill a small dog. It might. It might not. There are no guarantees in this life.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Christoph Zurnieden/Flickr Creative Commons