The Prince and The Toad | Colin Harris

Ever since I was a young, inquisitive child, I have been in love with frogs. I spent many hot summer nights on my hands and knees catching toads in the backyard until my mom would call me inside and send me to bed. Lying atop my covers with the fan whirling above me, I would blissfully fall asleep to the orchestra of crickets and tree frogs outside my bedroom window. I even caught a huge bullfrog in my grandma’s pond to compete in the Calaveras County Jumping Frog Jubilee. Unfortunately, after spending all night trying to escape from the red cooler we transported it in, it was too exhausted the next morning to make even a single hop, landing us in last place. Mark Twain rolled his eyes in the grave.

I used to kiss every toad I caught, on the lips, hoping they would turn into princes. My mother told me that I would get warts, but I ignored her and stubbornly kept on smooching. It wasn’t just my mom that I challenged on a daily basis; while many other girls my age played with barbies, I spent all day playing with dinosaur toys and catching blue belly lizards in the woodpile near my house. My father called me a tomboy, and I was proud to have that title. I bonded with my siblings by playing various imagination games, and my favorite was pretending my name was Nick and my sister’s name was Michael while we ran around the backyard with my little brother. The outdoors was where I was able to escape, and when I had a rough day at school I could always come home to play with my warty friends.

The constant presence of these amphibians was an important part of my childhood, filling me with a love of nature and of all the amazing creatures that surround us. I was especially fascinated with their ability to metamorphose into their adult form. My small hometown of Sanger, California often felt like a stagnant pond to me, and I was the little tadpole that was trapped inside it. This may be why I often fantasized about one day embarking on journeys into the world beyond after becoming an independent, graceful adult like the frogs I loved to catch.

This fascination with herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians) stayed with me into adulthood, leading me to take a Neotropical Herpetology course at the Institute of Tropical Ecology and Conservation (ITEC) in Bocas del Toro, Panama, my first big journey away from home. Here I stayed at a field station in the jungle for a month and caught various amazing animals such as a blunt-headed tree snake, green basilisk, casque-headed lizard, and many, many strawberry poison-dart frogs (Oophaga pumilio), the species I was studying for my research paper. I even caught a young caiman with my bare hands in the mangrove swamp, just to prove to my teacher that I could. My typical stubbornness had surfaced again.

For my project I compared the brightly colored poison-dart frog with its drab relative Allobates to see if aposematic coloration (bright colors that warn predators of an animal’s toxicity) has an effect on escape behavior, and what that specific effect is. This involved many hours of tedious field work in the jungle measuring frog hops with a ruler and hand-catching dozens of frogs to measure their body and leg length ratios, all while being eaten by clouds of mosquitos. I was reliving my childhood, only on a grander scale. After compiling the data and analyzing it I found that Allobates escape in a very quick zig-zag pattern of long hops, since they are not poisonous and fear being eaten, while pumilio make short, leisurely hops unless you stomp near them or make a quick grab, in which case they flee. It apparently doesn’t matter how deadly your skin is, you still don’t want to be smashed by a giant clumsy creature. The class and field experience I gained made me aware of the immensely negative impact humans have had on frog populations, mainly from deforestation and reduction of habitat, 50-90 percent of which has been destroyed worldwide. I learned about the collaborating causes of the decline and extinction of many frog species, some of which are: acid rain caused by cars and factories, the pollution of rivers with pesticides and fertilizers, hormones leaching into the water supply, the spread of chytrid fungus (a fungus that infects the skin of amphibians, thickening it and preventing the passage of oxygen and electrolytes, leading to death), and the introduction of invasive species. This knowledge gave me a new sense of urgency when it came to saving frog species, as I now understood that much needed to be done to save the animals that I loved.

By the end of my stay at the field station I had not only expanded my knowledge and appreciation of ecology and amphibians, but I had grown immensely as a person. Even after being away from home and taking control of my life as an adult, I still felt like the same ol’ awkward tadpole that had not yet undergone a metamorphosis. I felt incomplete, and the realization that I needed to take charge of my own transformation finally hit me. My journey into self-discovery had begun; I started to question my gender identity.

Shortly afterwards, I joined the California Conservation Corps (CCC), an organization whose motto is “hard work, low pay, miserable conditions, and more!” They work diligently to conserve our lands and native species while developing the state’s youth to become more confident and productive members of society. This program proved to be one of acceptance, and I finally felt comfortable enough to be open about my newly-realized trans identity and to live life full-time as male. Turns out I was not just a tomboy, I was a real boy all along. This was a difficult time, but I overcame obstacle after obstacle, including coming out to my parents and getting a therapist’s letter to start hormones and begin my physical transition. So began my own metamorphosis, and as each month passed I felt more and more like my true self, leading me to long-awaited happiness, confidence, and a sense of freedom. While I was taking testosterone to alter my appearance to better match my sense of self, I read that the common pesticide atrazine was entering waterways and making male frogs infertile, or, in one in ten cases, making them female. Unlike my physical transformation, which was a choice, these frogs were not given one, and the chemical was catastrophic to their populations. Like many chemicals that are proven harmful to wildlife, this one should be banned globally.

While our actions often hurt amphibians, we can help them too. In the CCC, I removed a lot of invasive plants such as canary grass from streams to improve salmon passage and constructed log structures to create habitats for the endangered Coho salmon and other aquatic species. The work is positively affecting the native frog populations, such as the red-legged frog, which is a federally-listed threatened species. Through these efforts I felt like I was finally making a difference, yet it didn’t feel like enough. Still too many amphibian species are endangered; a detailed worldwide assessment showed that one-third or more of the 6,300 species are threatened with extinction, and well over one hundred have already gone extinct since 1980 (Wake, 2008).

You may be wondering why saving frogs should matter to you. Frogs help all of us in many important ways. Medicines have been developed from frogs, such as antimicrobials and painkillers, and many other cures could be derived from the secretions of the frogs that we are wiping out at massive rates. It has even been found that proteins on the skin of some frogs can treat over 70 illnesses, including cancer, diabetes and stroke, by controlling blood vessel growth! Frogs also eat mosquitos and other bugs, are indicators of how clean a water supply is and how much pollution there is in an area, and play an important role in the food web and in the community of life as a whole. So when we save the frogs, we are also saving ourselves, and the generations that come after us.  

The best way to conserve frogs, even more important than education and captive breeding, is to preserve the land on which they already live. All we need to do to secure these species’ futures, and ours in turn, is to set aside protected land where farming and clear-cutting is forbidden, and the populations will naturally bounce back. Combine this with limitations on certain pesticides and better filtering techniques at water treatment plants to remove our hormones, and we’ll be saving the frogs in no time! So petition your local government, start a save the frogs group or fundraiser in your town, read some books about frogs or go watch them at your local pond; do whatever you can with the resources you have to help out these amazing animals. You can learn more about frogs and what you can do for them by visiting SaveTheFrogs.com.

There is now another similarity that can be drawn between me and frogs; the well-being of both the trans community and amphibian populations are being threatened under our current administration. The Environmental Protection Agency is being dismantled, an agency that protects the land on which amphibians depend and prevents the use of harmful pesticides near the habitats of endangered species of frogs, such as the red-legged frog. Without the EPA, many frogs may come even closer to extinction than they already are. As for transgender rights, federal protections for transgender students that allowed them to use the bathroom that corresponded with their gender identity were rescinded, which will now allow states to pass laws that jeopardize the safety of transgender individuals who want to use public restrooms. This not only opens already-vulnerable trans kids up to more bullying, it also sends the message that trans people are not deserving of the same basic rights as everyone else.  This is an unacceptable stance, especially considering before these arguments over trans bathroom rights took place, everyone was sharing bathrooms with trans people with no problems. It is the government’s job to set guidelines and create laws that protect the land and all the people that depend on it, and with these recent actions it seems as though this is no longer the case. We must fight for the protection of nature, and for our fellow Americans who happen to be trans, like never before.

I believe my time spent with frogs out in nature helped give me the clarity and confidence to become the person I am today. I want to try to return the favor by protecting them. It turns out that my determination to turn the frogs into princes was misguided; my love of amphibians didn’t change them, they changed me. I was the prince all along. Who knows, maybe they’ll change your life too.