Toad wars


Words || Laura Neil

I am six years old, playing a game of driveway basketball with my sister. Dribbling the ball, preparing to shoot, and her scream broke my concentration. I saw it and froze – right beside my heel, a huge, glaring cane toad with warty little toxin glands pulsing. Out of pure instinct, I pitched the ball straight at the toad, flattening it with a wet, muffled thump. Despite resembling a nightmarish little Anzac biscuit, the toad turned and hopped past both of us, back into the long grass. Although completely flattened, it was still unbelievably intact.

Growing up in South-East Queensland between the cane fields and the beach meant a childhood marred by close encounters with cane toads. Queensland gave the toad to the rest of the nation – it was on our shores that the first fleet of 102 toads arrived in 1935, imported from Hawaii by the Queensland Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations. The plan was for the toad to attack the scarab beetle that destroyed cane crops. By the time it was discovered that these toads could not jump high enough to attack their intended prey, it was too late – the hardy little beasts were getting amongst it in their new tropical paradise like freshly 18-year-old schoolies on the Gold Coast. The population exploded and spread at an alarming rate, covering a further 10 kilometres per year, then faster and further as the the toads at the front of the pack bred and produced even faster offspring.

Some eighty years on, the legacy of the Sugar Bureau’s stupid mistake is ‘Cane Toad Season’, an annual invasion that strikes dread and despair into the hearts of all who live in the tropics, particularly those of us who are situated near a coastal cane plantation. After the pre-summer rains, the invasion front bears down. Toads in drain pipes, toads on footpaths, backyards and verandas. Toads lurking in the garden and in the grass, filling the night air with the constant trill of their mating call, and oozing poison that can blind a human and put a family dog into cardiac arrest. Cane Toad Season is a time when wearing thongs is compulsory at all times, especially if you’re just nicking out to the clothesline after dark to grab a clean pair of undies. Toads clog the blades of lawn mowers and ‘toadkill’ carcasses stink up gutters on the side of the road.

At the ripe old age of eight, I was taught my responsibility as a Queenslander when it came to cane toads. During a social science lesson; we were sitting in a circle around my teacher Mr Burrows, when he explained that we could all ‘do our bit’ if we caught a toad or two, sealed them up in a plastic bag and stuck them in the fridge. This process, called ‘Stepped Hypothermia’, would put the toads into a deep hibernation after which they could then be transferred to the freezer, allowing them to die peacefully. I’d never considered death much, let alone the idea that there was a ‘nice’ way to kill anything. Even more horrific was the idea of a bagged toad sitting in the door of the fridge between the tub of Flora and Mum’s perfumes.

Just when I thought the lesson couldn’t get any traumatic, a kid called Ronny Gilson raised his hand.

“Yes Ron?”

“I once put a toad in the microwave and it blew up!”

This was met with a clashed chorus of cheers and moans and I swallowed down the urge to spew, picturing pink and glistening bits of toad splattered on the inside of a microwave.’

‘Toading’, the extremist approach to cane toad population control, is virtually a legitimate seasonal Queensland sport. Every wet season, as local news bulletins and environmental action groups advise the public to ‘do their bit’, small armies of schoolboys armed with an assortment of ‘garage weapons’ (golf clubs, cricket bats, shovels, aerosol cans and Bic lighters) take to the streets to destroy as many cane toads as possible. The more creative the extermination the better, and gore-stories of ‘toading’ exploits were shared in the playground for weeks.

Despite environmental action groups publicly opposing cane toad cruelty, toading was a common and accepted practice in my local community. When a Queensland community newspaper recently asked its readers what their preferred method of getting rid of cane toads was, their response was resoundingly in favour of golf clubs, cricket bats and shovels over refrigeration, arguing that it was no different to swatting or spraying a fly. “Give the kids a gold club and go have some fun, I say,” one reader insisted. Further, when Queensland-born politician Dave Tollner once tried to implement a ‘Toad Whacking Day’ in his electorate in the Northern Territory, he reminisced on the glory days of his youth hunting cane toads with pellet guns, stating: “If I was a cane toad, I’d much prefer to go out by being belted over the head with a golf club than I would being stuck in a deep freeze.”

But what exactly is the mass appeal with cane toad hunting? Why do generations of kids continue to participate? Does it come down to a young boy’s urge to hunt something tough, notorious and dangerous at an age when girls still had germs, and beer was something their parents drank? Was it the fact that it was a cheap and inclusive sport that didn’t involve membership fees, special boots or jerseys? I doubt it boiled down to the fact that kids cared about their environment, the fragile ecosystem that the toads were destroying – one full of green tree frogs and goannas.

I even harboured this doubt as a kid. Toads are tough. We learned in school that they could withstand extreme temperatures and dehydration, hop for over a kilometre in a single night and come back to life after 6 hours in a refrigerator. I knew that they could even survive being pancaked by a basketball. The RSPCA liked to point out regularly that a golf club lacks the size and weight to deliver a death blow to a cane toad. Yet 60% of Sunshine Coast residents, when polled by the newspaper, chose the golf club as their preferred method of cane toad extermination.

What if the hunt wasn’t really all about the kill?

One sticky summer afternoon, I was walking down to the beach when I looked across the road and saw that a telephone pole had a lump on it. Crossing the road, the image became clear – nailed to a telephone pole was a cane toad, crucified, his little hands and feet stretched out in star formation, as though he was embracing the pole. Its skin was bloated and stretched in the afternoon sun, and its mouth was slightly agape, in fruitless protest.

Nobody came to remove the little corpse from the telephone pole and it stayed nailed up there for weeks. I learned to take an alternative route to the beach, avoiding it until cane toad season was over and I eventually forgot all about it. When I resumed my usual route, months later, the toad had all but disintegrated and all that remained were the four rusty nails.