Herps Alive! A Reptile Rescue Herpetologist Writes About Frogs

Guest Post by Keith Gisser

I know what you are thinking.

Why is a reptile rescue guy writing about frogs? They aren’t reptiles. And captive frogs don’t need to be rescued. Gators, boas, pythons, maybe even big monitor lizards and iguanas, sure. But frogs?

Herps Alive! The Interactive Reptile and Amphibian Experience, is a traveling educational herpetology program and display. We have presented in 36 states (primarily at college campuses, but also at libraries, festivals elementary and high schools). Now in my fifties, I did my first paid program at age 17,  and now my daughter a degreed Interpretative Naturalist, and my son, a marketing whiz, often travel and help me. We offer display programs and interactive lectures as well as classroom sessions, and have presented an estimated 3,000 programs since we started (we have worked some “real” jobs here and there).

As your reputation builds, you start getting calls to adopt animals. Usually they are pets that people can’t keep. Sometimes they are police seizures or animals from other unfortunate situations.  We have always accepted these animals in an effort to keep a good relationship with the museums, nature centers and law enforcement officials who contact us.

But in the last year or so, the rescue mission has taken on a life of its own.  We have been asked to take in dozens of animals. And for the first time, we began rehoming a few. As a result we are spinning off our rescue mission and working on moving it to a separate location, as we turn it into a charitable foundation.

But what about the frogs?

I have been fascinated with frogs my entire life. My career as a herpetologist probably began at age nine when I caught a toad. I brought him home in a rinsed out pickle jar. (That was 45 years ago when such behavior was acceptable. At the time they were also in the genus Bufo, not Anaxyrus) I have bred several species of frog in captivity and always include a discussion of metamorphosis in my educational programs.

Southern Toad

Right now we have three frogs among our 150 animals.  Our Southern Toad (Anaxyrusterrestris) was living in a Carolina classroom after a student had brought him. He had been in captivity for too long to be released, so when we came in to do a program, the teacher asked if we could take him. Known just as The Toad, he eats crickets and small worms, as well as waxworms.

Beatrice is an African Clawed Frog (Xenopuslaevis) who was raised from a small size by my son’s ex-girlfriend. When she moved into a new home, she asked us to take her on. Beatrice was raised in a 10 gallon aquarium. When we tried to move her to a larger one, she went off feed and seemed generally unhappy. So back into the ten she went even though it really is too small for her. She loves her goldfish and nightcrawlers and eats anywhere from 10-30 a week. Unfortunately, her relatives have been taking a bad rap lately as they have been identified as the culprits that carried of the dreaded chytrid fungus.  It’s not really their fault. In everywhere except their African home, they were used as lab animals. They were used as part of a pregnancy test. The problem is not with them carrying the fungus, but rather with the irresponsible people who have released them outside their normal environment.

African Clawed Frog

Finally, there is Poncherello Pegone Pixiefrog, our African Bullfrog (Pyxicephalusadsperus). “Ponch” is named for the  mayor on the cartoon My Gym Partner’s a Monkey., who is also a Pixie, or African Bullfrog. We adopted him from a breeder because he appears to be blind in one eye and the breeder did not want him. Ponch eats thawed mice off tongs, usually one or two a week. He is also a regular in our programs, having traveled to 14 states since we got him two years ago. While our other frogs are kept in our entrance hallway (Our facility is not air conditioned), Ponch loves the heat and his aquarium is kept in our snake and lizard room, where the high ambient temperature helps him with digestion.

We hope to see you some time in the future…

About Keith Gisser:

Keith caught a toad (Anaxyrus ssp) when he was nine and his herpetology career began. He has presented Herps Alive! an award-winning, nationally recognized interactive reptile and amphibian program based in Ohio, at over 170 college campuses and hundreds of other venues in 39 states.

Gisser, who has been a herpetology educator for over thirty years and currently maintains about 140 reptiles, amphibians and crocodilians, nearly all of which are adoptions or rescues, about half of which are used in his programs. The rescue and adoption mission has taken more and more of his time and efforts in recent years and will soon be “spun off” as the Herps Alive! Foundation, which is in the process of seeking non-profit status and accreditation as a rescue.


Back to School: Thoughts about Grow-a-Frog Kits in the Classroom

Tadpole Metamorphosizing into Frog

It’s back-to-school time again, a time when teachers may be planning their life science classes. What better way to illustrate an animal’s life cycle than by teaching kids about the remarkable transformation of a tadpole into a frog?  Unfortunately teachers may decide to use grow-a-frog kits to teach children about metamorphosis.

I have to admit I have mixed feelings about advising teachers not to raise live amphibians in the classroom. As a child, my love of animals was fostered by the various animals I kept at home, including fish and turtles. I probably would have enjoyed having a live frog in the classroom.

But the authors of an article in the Herpetological Review, “Considerations and Recommendations for Raising Live Amphibians in Classrooms,” remind us that the world is no longer a simple place: innocent acts like catching tadpoles and releasing them later into local ponds are much more complicated than they used to be.

Releasing live  frogs “grown” in the classroom into the wild can potentially harm native amphibians (even if the animals are native to the area) by possibly spreading infectious diseases, such as the deadly chytrid fungus, a disease that has wiped out entire frog populations. It may also introduce species (such as bullfrogs) that might become invasive and disrupt local amphibians.

After we wrote a few posts discouraging people from buying the Frog-o-Sphere kits, quite a few readers who owned the kits were distressed and emailed us, asking  if they should “let the frogs go.” We wrote back immediately, telling them not to release the frogs into the wild. Instead we referred them to frog care sites and books. If you’ve already purchased a frog kit, it is your responsibility to take care of the frog. Releasing it into the wild helps neither the frog nor the environment.

The problems with the classroom grow-a-frog kits are similar. After the tadpole grows into a frog, the children may become bored with it and the teacher may decide to release it into a local pond. Or at the end of the school year, the teacher may give it to a family, who then releases it somewhere in the neighborhood.  As advised in the article above: “This should never be done, and in fact, it is illegal in several states. No amphibian purchased or received from any commercial or informal (e.g., a neighbor) source may be released into the wild. This recommendation applies whether the species is technically ‘native’ to the region of release, or not.”

If you decide to purchase a grow-a-frog kit (which we hope you don’t), you will be making a commitment to take care of the frog for its natural lifespan.

How can teachers and parents teach children about the life cycle of frogs without raising live frogs? We would suggest contacting a local nature center and setting up a field trip in the spring, where the children can see eggs and tadpoles in the wild.  This past spring while hiking I frequently saw frog egg clusters in ponds and swamps, and it’s fairly easy to see tadpoles as well. A local naturalist will know where to look.

To prepare the children for what they might see in the spring, here are some resources:

The Amphibian Project : Classroom curricula, field projects and hands-on activities, fundraising ideas for students, and links.

Amphibians. 35 min. (Eyewitness DVD) Describes amphibian life cycle and anatomy; behaviors and adaptations; and amphibian characteristics. Grades 5-12

Two frog life cycle plastic sets:

For more information:
Joseph R. Medelson III et al. “Considerations and Recommendations for Raising Live Amphibians in Classrooms,” Herpetological Review, 2009.
The authors of the article above recommend this pamphlet, produced by Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (PARC) entitled “Don’t Turn it Loose.”

Brookstone to Discontinue Frog-O-Sphere kits

We were happy to learn that Brookstone has decided to remove the Frog-O-Sphere kit from its shelves.

In previous posts we’ve blogged about why we were against this product. Others have protested against the kits as well, most notably PETA, which organized thousands of calls and e-mails to Brooksone, as well as appearances of a giant frog outside the Brookstone headquarters to protest the kits. After 18 months of protests, Brookstone has decided to discontinue the Frog-O-Sphere kit.

Photo courtesy of PETA

Brookstone joins Magic Beans, Target, and other retailers that have stopped selling these kits, but according to PETA, Coach House Gifts is still selling frogs in “EcoAquariums.”

Why did we think these kits were so bad? Unfortunately, the promise of a true ecosystem was their selling point, but this promise was overstated. The kit was meant to more or less take care of itself, the snail eating the algae, and so on. But the snails frequently died so a key part of the “ecosystem” fell apart. As with any pet, it takes more than a simple gimmick, and usually a lot of work, to keep the pet healthy and flourishing. In many cases these frog kits were bought as decorations for offices or as spontaneous gifts for a child. Once the novelty wore off, the frogs languished. Of course, this can happen with any pet, but because the frogs were not bought in pet stores, buyers did not receive instructions on the proper care of the frogs. In addition, many frogs died on the store shelves or while being shipped across the country.

We haven’t kept frogs as pets and generally don’t recommend it. In some cases, the frogs may be collected from wild populations (not the case with African Dwarf frogs). Pet frogs, especially from these types of kits, may be “let free,” which often happens at the end of a school year for a classroom frog grown from a kit,  or when a child gets bored with it. These “free” frogs can wreak havoc on native frog populations by spreading disease.

If you purchased a Frog-O-Sphere, we highly recommend you learn about how to take care of your frog properly. We’ve included some links below. If you are experienced in the care of African dwarf frogs, please help us out by sharing tips in the comments.

Care of African Dwarf Frogs

Keeping African Clawed frogs and African Dwarf frogs

African Dwarf Frogs Housing and Feeding

Frog World: African Dwarf Frog

Book from Amazon: Your Happy Healthy Pet: Frogs and Toads


U.S. Agency Proposes Legislation to Help Stem Spread of Chytrid Fungus

In an effort to stem the spread of the deadly chytrid fungus that is wiping out amphibian populations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is considering banning the importation of amphibians and their eggs without a permit certifying the animals are disease-free. The chytrid fungus has caused the extinction of at least 200 amphibian species and continues to be one of the greatest threats to amphibians.

Northern Leopard Frog, a North American native species

In a statement, Rowan Gould, Acting Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said,

The worldwide decline of amphibians is of great concern to us. Chytrid is attributed as a major cause of this amphibian mortality. We understand that halting the spread of the fungus or eradicating it will take more than just regulating importation and transportation of infected amphibians, but it is a major step in the right direction.

According the the FWS website, under the Lacey Act, the Department of the Interior is authorized to regulate the importation and interstate transport of wildlife species determined to be injurious to the welfare and survival of native wildlife. Current regulations prohibit the release into the wild of all species of live amphibians or their eggs, except as authorized. But, of course, this law isn’t easily enforced. Many pet frogs are let “free” in local ponds, potentially infecting native species.

A listing under the Lacey Act would not affect a person or institution that currently owns an amphibian and does not transport it to another state or U.S. territory.

At FROGS ARE GREEN, we applaud this proposed legislation and feel it would be a huge step toward controlling the spread of the chytrid fungus that threatens the survival of so many amphibian species, including native species listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The FWS is seeking input from the public. You can leave a comment until December 16, 2010. Please take a few minutes to comment and to show your support for a measure that will genuinely help amphibians.

More information: Statement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Information from Save the Frogs about the frog legs trade and the spread of infectious diseases.


Pet Frogs Associated with Recent Salmonella Outbreak

Yesterday we received information from the American Veterinary Medical Association that about 80 people in 28 states have now become ill in a salmonella outbreak associated with pet frogs. More than three-quarters of the illnesses involved children younger than 10.

Bacteria matching the outbreak strain were found in aquariums that contained aquatic frogs. The Center for Disease Control and the Utah Department of Public Health (the site of at least 6 cases) are investigating animal distributors and vendors as possible sources of the outbreak.

Symptoms of Salmonella include: diarrhea, fever, and cramps 12-72 hours after the infection enters the body. The infection persists four to seven days and even longer for infected individuals with weaker immune systems.

People who should make explicit efforts to avoid contact with the animals are children, especially those younger than five years old, elderly people, and people with weak immune systems.

Given the findings, the Central for Disease Control advises the following:

  • Amphibians should not be kept in child-care centers.
  • Habitats containing amphibians should not be kept in a child’s bedroom, especially children aged less than 5 years.
  • Do not allow amphibians to roam freely through the house, especially in food preparation areas. Keep amphibians out of kitchens and other areas where food and drink is prepared or served to prevent contamination.
  • Habitats and their contents should be carefully cleaned outside of the home. Use disposable gloves when cleaning and do not dispose of water in sinks used for food preparation or for obtaining drinking water.
  • Do not bathe animals or their habitats in your kitchen sink. If bathtubs are used for these purposes, they should be thoroughly cleaned afterward. Use bleach to disinfect a tub or other place where amphibian habitats are cleaned.
  • Children aged less than 5 years should not clean habitats.
  • Always wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after cleaning habitats.

Aquatic frogs, such as the African Dwarf frog, are the frogs sold in Brookstone’s Frog-O-Sphere kits and other kits. This salmonella outbreak is another good reason to avoid these live frog kits.


Update on the Frog-O-Sphere Controversy

In September, we wrote a post about Frog-O-Spheres, a Brookstone kit (not sold in pet stores) that contains live African dwarf frogs. These kits, marketed as educational products, confine two aquatic frogs to a small aquarium, without shelter or a place  to hide.

These aquatic frogs actually need a gallon of water per frog in order to thrive, and it is recommended that they have some sort of water heating, as well as artificial light to simuate night and day because they are nocturnal. But the Frog-O-Spheres’ gimmick is that they are a complete “ecosystem” and have all that the frogs will need to stay healthy. In fact, if one part of the “ecosystem” doesn’t function (for example, if the snails that are supposed to eat the algae die), the frogs suffer.

Some people who buy these kits do take the time to learn how to care for their frogs properly and the frogs may live for a few years or longer.  But many people purchase the kits as an office decoration or as a cute gift for kids, not unlike the hermit crabs people buy at the seashore in the summer. Without proper care, however, the animals usually die within a month or two.

In November, after PETA received numerous complaints about the Frog-O-Spheres, they went undercover at Wild Creation, the company that supplies the kits to Brookstone. They found the following:

  • Hundred of frogs crammed into bins with dirty, unfiltered water.
  • Frogs that were rarely fed. Because the frogs were starving, they were feeding on each other and some customers were complaining about frogs with missing limbs.
  • No training was provided to employees. Live frogs were left for dead, tossed on the floor, or thrown in the trash.
  • Frogs suspected of being sick were mistakenly shipped to customers instead of being properly quarantined. Frogs were plucked from tubs containing fungus-covered decomposing frogs and were also shipped to customers.

In addition, the Center for Disease Control reported a week ago that a national salmonella outbreak afflicting 48 people in 25 states was connected to African dwarf frog pets.

Please see the PETA website for more information, including a film shot at Wild Creation, and suggestions for ways you can take action to urge Brookstone to stop selling Frog-O-Spheres.

image from frogworld.net

A healthy frog from frogworld.net