THOSE WHO REGULARLY HEAR JOHN Davis, host of NPR’s “Morning Edition” and WGCU’s “Gulf Coast Live” public radio broadcasts from Marco Island north to Sarasota, may have noticed a darkening in the typically warm timbre of his voice early in May.
For good reason.
Mr. Davis had been relaxing at home — he lives in a condominium complex on a crowded street in south Fort Myers — when his longtime roommate and companion, a 16-pound Chihuahua mix named Finn, wandered out onto the screened lanai. There, Finn discovered a cane toad, also known as a Bufo toad (from its one-time scientific classification, Bufo marinus), a marine toad, a giant toad or probably just an invasive SOB of a toad — a squarish creature roughly the size of an open human hand with two triangular glands on its shoulders containing a potent, milky toxin.
The day didn’t end well.
In a terse Facebook post, Mr. Davis told his friends what happened, a story too often repeated now in the warm wet mating season for the world’s largest toad, ranging in Florida from Key West to Palm Beach County on the east coast, and from the Naples area in southern Collier County to Tampa on the west, with pocket populations identified elsewhere:
“This morning, Finn got into it with a poisonous cane toad on the porch. Meredith Nail (Mr. Davis’s neighbor and close friend) and I flew to the emergency vet hospital but he didn’t make it. This still doesn’t feel real. He was my best friend for six years. I love you so f***ing much buddy.”
Mr. Davis, who worked in hospital emergency rooms for seven years before beginning a career in public radio, remains a cool customer under pressure. He did everything he could, everything the experts suggest, in trying to save Finn’s life.
“When you’re at work (in an emergency room) you’re a little more detached, though,” he noted recently, recalling the home incident a month later.
“I was looking at my phone on the screened-in lanai porch and the toad was already out there hiding under some wicker furniture. Finn got three good bites in before we got it away from him. He started foaming and we got him in the bathtub and rinsed his mouth out as best we could.”
Sometimes that works, explains Dr. Amanda Ziegler, a veterinarian at the Keys Animal Care Center based in Key West (the website, www.keysanimalcarecenter.com, includes a blog discussion singularly devoted to cane toads). She once worked as an emergency vet in the west coast region from Cape Coral to Port Charlotte, another cane toad hot spot where the creatures have seemingly prospered.
“The number one thing you can do is to aggressively rinse the mouth, with a water hose, a kitchen sprayer, the bathtub faucet or showerhead — it can sometimes make it harder for the toxin to be absorbed,” Dr. Ziegler said.
A couple of years ago the population of cane toads appeared to increase rapidly along the Atlantic Boulevard area in Key West, extending from Higgs Beach to the Atlantic Condominiums, she said.
“Our clients down in that area are not on the water, they’re not on a canal or anything” — but that didn’t stop the cane toads, which often congregate around freshwater ponds, canals, ditches or any wet areas where humans have significantly altered the landscapes in the southern half of the peninsula.
Cane toads are toxic at any size or age, and a single adult female can produce between 10,000 and 25,000 eggs at a time.
“It’s a really scary problem,” Dr. Ziegler added, and mostly for dogs, not cats, which seem to leave the toads alone. Cane toads are toxic to humans as well, although they haven’t been known to cause deaths.
Dr. Ziegler lives with two dogs at the moment, she said, and she takes them nowhere without checking first for the threat.
If a dog does tangle with a cane toad, she advises, “Wash the dog’s mouth out and get in the car. You don’t want to sit around and see how he does. The dogs that do show neurologic symptoms — and I’ve seen them get through it with aggressive care — have a better chance if you’re proactive.”
How much better a chance?
“About half survive, and that’s a big project,” she said. “You use IV fluids, and sometimes cardiac medications, seizure medications and monitoring.”
Don’t blame the cane
Steve Johnson, associate professor of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at the University of Florida in Gainesville, an expert in amphibians and reptiles, says cane toads were first imported to Florida in the 1930s from their native South and Central America by sugar cane growers trying to rid their fields of beetle pests.
“There was a big push globally to spread cane toads around the world — there was some evidence they could be a biological pest control agent for sugar cane — but vertebrates, we’ve learned, are really bad as biological control agents.”
Unlike in Australia, the cane toad didn’t take in Florida fields; they disappeared from the cane.
But starting in the 1950s when importers in Miami brought them in as pets and some were likely released or escaped near canals, ditches or ponds, their populations rapidly gained a foothold.
“I wouldn’t say Florida now has an invasion of cane toads, but they continue to expand here, and their expansion is tied to human population growth and habitats. Here, they do best in human areas, but there’s little evidence they invade natural areas. So the impact is socio-economic — they can change your quality of life if you have dogs, and cost you money.”
In Australia, he noted, the opposite has been true. Cane toads are among the direst invasive threats on that continent, spreading into wild areas and wiping out or greatly reducing some native species of predators. They can kill everything from small mammals to crocodiles.
Dr. Johnson did a study of robust populations in the Naples area — at two developments, Fiddler’s Creek and Isles of Collier Preserve — and learned after tracking them over time that (unlike in Australia) they aren’t particularly nomadic.
“They didn’t move much over the course of the tracking period, and they didn’t invade natural areas nearby, even though they can move far enough to do it.
“Why? It could be that conditions are so good where they are, they don’t have to.”
Cane toads famously eat almost anything they can force into their broad mouths, typically consuming such insects as beetles, ants, winged termites, crickets, honey bees, along with marine snails, small frogs, native toads, small snakes and even mammals.
Or they may not do as well in wild areas because some Florida predators could keep them in check — that, at least, is one hypothesis, Prof. Johnson notes.
In Australia, predators evolved with no history or experience of toads, but in Florida that’s not the case. Here, the native southern toad resembles young cane toads, and it, too, is toxic, but never lethal to predatory animals.
Thus, some wildlife biologists theorize, Florida predators may have developed some immunity to toad toxins, or learned to avoid toads, or both.
“We have snakes that specialize in toads — our hognose snake. But we don’t know: Would a hognose snake handle a similar size cane toad?” Prof. Johnson wonders.
He continues to study cane toads, maintaining and updating the most current Florida map of their locations — and with the help of a species he calls “Citizen scientists,” he and other researchers can learn a lot more, he says. A fact sheet about cane toads can be found at www.edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw432.
And when people spot what they think could be a cane toad — and if it’s a young cane toad (they can live as long as 15 years) it will resemble a southern toad — he asks that they photograph it and send the photo and location to him at email@example.com.
“On the map, there’s a broad white area in the middle (of Florida) where cane toads apparently don’t exist, although they’ve expanded into Brevard County and into the Sarasota area, since the last time we updated the map. But that could be simply because people aren’t looking for them there, and they’re underreported,” he acknowledges.
“Could we eradicate them? I think the answer is no. I don’t see any likelihood of that happening.”
But he recommends killing cane toads (not southern toads) whenever people encounter them, and he adds this encouraging thought: “They can be controlled locally and even individually by regular treatment.”
Think of them as pests
That’s also the view of Jeannine Tilford, owner of the Jupiter-based business, Toad Busters (www.bufobusters.com), now partnered with a similar business, Iguana Busters, to bust both cane toads and iguanas from Key West to Martin County and from Naples to Port Charlotte.
If individual property owners view them just like other pests — cockroaches, for example — treating for them on a regular basis (she recommends at least monthly, in season), they can stop the problem at home and create safe local environments for pets.
“These toads are so toxic we remove them all by hand, everything by hand. We don’t put out any traps or poisons because they’re either not effective or they’re dangerous for wildlife,” she explains.
“So we put customers on a regular schedule and educate them while we’re out there. We’re never going to get rid of cane toads, but were managing a lot of the population. We can go into a property and collect like 100, and pretty soon we’re collecting five or less.”
Ms. Tilford describes them as territorial, so once they’re cleared out of an area, others may move in only days or weeks later.
“It’s a continual process where babies come up through the grass and work their way up to a house into the lights or the larger spots where they hang out. A lot of people ask, ‘If you do my house but not the neighbors’ is it even going to work?’
“The answer is, yes. You kind of help the neighbor but it works well.”
The prices her company charges for individual properties are roughly comparable to the price people pay for pest control, she says, and there is this thought, too: “When you look at the cost of one vet visit for a dog poisoned by a cane toad, it can run way over $1,000. And sometimes you lose your dog. Compare that to us and you do a lot better in the pocketbook (and the heart) with us.”
Now, says Ms. Tilford, “we’re trying to get a lot more communities, the HOAs (homeowners’ associations) to do it, because we can manage the entire properties for a reduced amount per individual homeowner.
“I’m focusing on these golf courses or communities with a lot of ponds or waterways, where cane toads breed.”
In the last couple of years, she notes finally, Toad Busters has seen a big increase in the numbers of cane toads — in part, she theorizes, because the weather has been warmer in winter. No freezes across southern Florida. No extended periods of temperatures in the upper 30s or 40s for a week or two. In those conditions, she guesses, insects do better, so some newly hatched toads that might otherwise not have enough food to get them into summer, survive until the warmth and rainfall of late May and June create more robust insect populations.
“It’s a plausible theory,” says Dr. Ziegler, in Key West, where the lowest temperature ever recorded was 41 degrees, on Jan. 13, 1981.
Back in Fort Myers, where it does freeze but has not in the last couple of years, John Davis continues to report news and conduct cultural conversations with musicians, poets, scientists, chefs and others on his radio station, WGCU-FM. And then he goes home each day, where family members and friends have pushed him — hard, he says — into getting a new Chihuahua mix, this one named Oliver Kensington.
Ms. Nail, who was there the day Finn died from contact with a cane toad, went so far as to adopt a littermate of young Oliver, in support of Mr. Davis. Her little dog is named Lillian.
“But it’s going to take a long time,” Mr. Davis says. Everybody knows what he’s talking about: getting over a broken heart.
“And a lot of care,” he adds, using the word to mean vigilance and caution, noting that he and Ms. Nail are installing fine-mesh screens around their lanais.
Care and caution. That’s how life is in cane toad country, especially for pet lovers.¦