As It Happens

'You can't step anywhere': Thousands of toxic toads swarm Florida suburb

"Who ya gonna call?" For Jeannine Tilford, the answer is clear: her removal company, Toad Busters.

The owner of Toad Busters blames mild winter and a massive fish die-off for the influx

A specimen of a cane toad, also known as a bufo toad. (Submitted by Toad Busters)

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Over the past week, the Palm Beach Gardens area of South Florida has been besieged by hundreds of thousands of cane toads.

Cane toads, also known as "bufos," are a highly toxic species that can cause harm to animals and people.  And they're why business for Toad Busters, a toad removal company, is going gangbusters.

Jeannine Tilford, the owner-operator of Toad Busters, spoke with As it Happens guest host Megan Williams. Here is some of their conversation.

Can you tell me what these South Florida neighbourhoods look like right now with this huge influx of toads?

Well, it's the one area that has most of the toads right now that's an issue. But every year when the bufos breed ... the babies come out of the water and kind of infiltrate all over the ... yards into the patios, to where there's baby toads everywhere.

Jeannine Tilford is the owner-operator of Toad Busters, a toad removal company based in South Florida. (Submitted by Toad Busters)

What kind of numbers are we talking about?

Like, you can't step anywhere without stepping on them. 

Really? You can't step out of ... in your backyard or front yard, anywhere?

When you're walking through the patio or the grass, they're just in the thousands, everywhere.

When the parents lay the eggs, they can lay anywhere from like 3,000 up to 10,000 or 20,000 eggs.

So when you have all these eggs that are hatched at the same time — because like, say tonight it's going to rain — all the males and females will meet up at the ponds, they'll all breed. And 22 days from now, we'll have another influx of these baby toads.

Plus, they also need water. So when they get to the pools, they jump in the pools. And when they get into the chlorine they generally drown, because they can't get out .

A bufo toad collected by Toad Busters. (Submitted by Toad Busters)

And what kind of damage are they causing?

They really don't cause much damage. It's just kind of a, more of an inconvenience. But if a dog were to just sit there and eat a bunch of them, they probably would end up getting pretty sick.

It's more of a mess — of having to clean them out of the filter continuously. When all the babies jump into the pools, the filter starts to collect them in the filtration baskets. So then those baskets need to be empty pretty regularly.

I mean, I could easily go out in an evening and collect three or four hundred toads.

So when people walk out of their homes and these toads are all over the place, are they actually smothering them?

Yes. When they step out of their houses and they're walking on the patios, it's very difficult not to step on them.

How long have these baby cane toads been a problem in Palm Beach Gardens? And why is this year so bad?

Probably since the toads were introduced.

I would say in the last 50 years or so, it's gotten worse — this year, I believe [it was] due to the fact that we had a very mild winter. So the time where the toads would be dormant, and the younger ones wouldn't survive due to the fact that there would be less insects for them to eat, didn't happen.

And also because of the lack of winter, they're breeding a month earlier.

This particular case, where we see massive amounts of babies coming out more so than usual, that pond had what we call a turnover, where there was a lot of plant vegetation in it and the plants died off. And when the plants die off, it uses oxygen to break down. And the oxygen depletes in the water, and the fish die.

And I think without having the fish in there, it disturbed the natural ecosystem of the normal process, and we ended up having more babies than usual.

A captured cane toad from Florida. (Submitted by Toad Busters)

So how do you go about actually capturing or getting rid of the toads?

We go out and we pick them up by hand or using nets, you know, just like dip nets and catch them if they're in the water. It's the most effective, 'cause they're out feeding at that time.

If we can get them in a large group, we can kind of vacuum them up sometimes using a Shop-Vac, and remove them that way. But there's just so many and they're so small it's really not possible to get rid of them at this stage. 

You say you use a Shop-Vac. What's that?

It's like a indoor-outdoor vacuum. You can suck up water with it, so we can get the toads into it.

It's not a regular vacuum. It doesn't make the toads into soup or anything.

Interview produced by Ashley Mak. Q&A edited for length and clarity.


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