During warm summer nights in that small suburb of Tucson, a mighty hunter emerged from our house. Six years old, wearing shorts and a tee shirt, high-top tennis shoes, and carrying a flashlight, a bucket, and a butterfly net, I stalked off through the streets in search of prey. It was toads I was after, big ugly warty toads. And they were out there, hundreds of them, hopping from out of the desert and through the neighborhood, all answering Mother Nature’s annual call of love.
During the day, the only time you would see one of these puffy, awkward creatures was on the road — smashed flat as a pancake. You’d see a lot of them, everywhere, rows of them where cars would score more than one at a time. It was disgusting. Of course as a young boy I was fascinated by that, too.
But at night they were big, round, and alive. Not quite frogs, and not quite lizards, these toads had short legs and didn’t jump as their froggy cousins did. No, they hopped. Quick, furtive, nimble little hops. Like this: Hop hop hop hop hop!
Being a born Herpetologist (even though back then I couldn’t even pronounce it, let alone know what it meant) I didn’t find these creatures at all ugly. They were adorable! I liked their weird bumpy skin, their gleaming eyes, and their humble just-leave-me-alone body language. To dogs, I knew, they were deadly poison. I remember at least once my dad sticking a running garden hose down my poor dog’s throat after catching him chewing on a toad. There was poison in those bumps, and if you broke them it would come out and kill you. That is, if you happen to be chewing on it. Being that I had no intention of doing that (and this being a long time before people found they could get high by licking them) I knew I was safe.
I remember walking along the sidewalks, catching them in my net and dumping them into my bucket. I also remember dodging tarantulas and other assorted big bugs. One was a long beetle with huge pinchers in front, and if you picked these up and got them mad they’d hiss at you. I also remember some of my friends out under a streetlight with their father’s fly fishing pole, whipping the fly around in the air and catching bats (who thought the fly lure was a moth, no doubt). But mainly I caught toads. Dozens of them. Literally, dozens, all piled up and hopping in a mass at the bottom of the bucket.
Then I’d bring the bucket of toads home and put them in the backyard. One time my future sister-in-law Cara was curious as to what exactly was in this bucket I kept bringing in at night, and looked down into it as it sat on the concrete of the back patio.
I can still hear her piercing scream.
“My God!” she shrieked. “That bucket is full of toads!” By the hysterical tone of her voice, it was like she’d found a severed human head. She did a frightened dance on her tiptoes and escaped into the house, complaining loudly about the Bucket ‘O’ Toads.
I remember one time I was out later than my curfew. I was late and I knew it. I don’t remember why I was late; there must have been something extra interesting, because it was a conscious decision not to leave just yet. Then when I arrived home and my father said I was late and that meant a spanking, I voluntarily submitted, putting myself over his knee and telling him I was ready. That made him laugh; he thought it was hilarious. But the spanking still hurt.
Since being a 6 year old toad hunter I’ve learned that I was right about the creatures. They really aren’t hideous little monsters. In fact, they’re a boon to us because of the hundreds of tons of bugs they eat every year, including cockroaches. That’s hundreds of tons of bugs that would otherwise be crawling around our homes.
Yes, this toad hunter has retired his net and bucket, but every once in a while I’ll happen upon one of these little guys, and I’ll pick it up and say hello. They’re welcome around my house.
That is, as long as they stay outside.