Rescue Stories

Forget Old Ladies! The New Act of Kindness is Helping Tiny Baby Toads Cross the Street

This is toadily like playing Frogger IRL.

It’s a tale as old as time: You’re born, you grow up, you realize it’s time to start a family, and then—whoops!—you have to dodge cars as you hop across a busy street on your way to mate.

Okay, it might not be as universal of a story as we originally let on, but it is the way of life for American toads in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Roxborough (and also the plot of the video game Frogger). These toads spend most of their lives in a wooded area, but journey to a nearby reservoir to breed. After breeding, the toads return to the woods and roughly six weeks later, teeny tiny toadlets emerge from the shallow waters of the reservoir and try to make the journey back to the woods, where they will live until they are mature enough to begin the cycle again.

This would normally the end of the story and you could commence humming The Circle of Life. Except for the fact that there is a busy road that separates the woods and reservoir, making this rite-of-passage pilgrimage extremely treacherous for the tiny toads. That is where Toad Detour comes in.

Toad Detour is a project sponsored by the Schyulkill Center to help the toads cross the road safely. Volunteers turn up every night from March 1st through June 30th, 7pm – 9pm, to act as the toads' guardian angels. The toads don't necessarily move every night—the weather has to be the right combination of warm and wet—but volunteers show up nightly just in case.

Ever the intrepid reporters, we went to see for ourselves and hopefully come face to face with some baby toads. Like most of our other beats, we went due to a mix of curiosity and close proximity to where we were anyway (and uh, our passion for journalism!) Upon arriving at the Toad Detour, we and other volunteers helped set up barriers blocking off the toad-traveled road and were handed clipboards to count the numbers of crossing toads and pickerel frogs. (While pickerel frogs aren’t the focus of the detour, sometimes they show and hop around just for funsies.)

We were instructed that if a toad veered toward the barricaded road, we were to use two hands to scoop him up and redirect his course to safety. Also, should we be so lucky and see teeny, tiny toadlets (often the size of your thumbnail!), it’s best to encourage them into a plastic cup and ferry them to safety as they are too delicate to pick up. We were raring to go and absolutely hyped at the idea of carrying around a Solo cup full of baby amphibians, but as we soon found out, the volunteering would be exciting in a different way.

One of the main (albeit less glamorous) jobs of the volunteers is to stand at the barricades and explain to stopped drivers our mission and the directions to go around the block. We stood at our post, crossing our fingers that some hoppin’ cute toad sightings would be in our future, and spoke with a few very polite, understanding drivers, eager to do anything they could for the cause.

We did have a run in with one irate man, who would not break for toads, or children for that matter. Upon explaining our situation, he yelled in our face “I don’t care!” We continued to explain that there were children in the road assisting with the toad volunteering and if he would wait a minute we’d remove the barricades, tell the children to get out of the street, and then he could proceed with caution up the closed street. With that, the man again screamed “I don’t care” and lurched his car towards us, swerving dramatically and gunning the car up the street as a nearby parent deftly yanked his son out of the way.

The volunteers all looked at each other wide-eyed and shocked and hoofed it up to the other end of the street to see if he rammed through the other barricade—but something even better had occurred. Because karma is most definitely real, this impatient man had tried to drive around the barricade but not quite cleared it, causing a big yellow scratch along the entire side of his car. Luckily, no toads (or children) were hurt by his toad-hating man's reckless driving, as we had unwittingly picked a toadless night to volunteer.

Our toad strikeout aside, Tour Detour is a wildly successful program that’s been going on over nine years. By May of this year at least 700 toads have been saved, and that’s not even counting all of the toadlets that have recently emerged. Even though we have yet to see any toadlets face to face, our new found passion for amphibians will bring us back to volunteering at Toad Detour for years to come! 

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