I was having a conversation with my mother the other day. She lives way down in South Texas, right on the Mexican border, and she mentioned that the community she lives in is positively overrun by cane toads.
Me being me, I cracked a joke about toad-licking, then had to explain the joke. My mother had never heard of it, and asked me if that was a real thing. It absolutely is.
Cane toads are native to South and Central America, but are also found in Mexico and South Texas. Growing up to nine inches long, they are a highly invasive species with a high reproduction rate and a voracious appetite for not only insects, but also small rodents, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.
Just how invasive are they? Cane toads were imported to Australia from Hawaii in the 1930s to help control beetles that were destroying sugar cane crops; because of their prolific reproduction (females breed year-round and lay up to 30,000 eggs at a time), they soon began to overrun the country.
Australia now actually holds events that reward prizes to those who can eliminate the most cane toads. Not that this helps with the toad population, but what else are you going to do in the Outback besides club monster toads?
So where does the licking of the toad come in? Cane toads secrete a toxin (appropriately called bufotoxin) that produces, among other symptoms, hallucinations. People lick these toads for the high (and some dogs, too. This, too, is a real thing, with many an article written on the subject; however, it poisons and can kill them, which is one reason why my mother takes great pains to make sure her dogs steer clear).
Bufotoxin is actually considered a Schedule I drug (the same classification as heroin and cocaine), and many find themselves in drug rehab facilities to kick their toad-licking — and sometimes toad skin-smoking — habits. (Personally, I wouldn’t want to be the one in group rehab admitting I was there for sucking on a fat toad, but different strokes, I guess.)
To paraphrase Nancy Regan, Just say no to the toad.
Now, lest you think this is a new thing, I’m here to tell you that it’s been around for awhile, as in, centuries. Tribes in South America (among other tribes and religions) have used bufotoxin in their religious ceremonies for its mind-altering properties, as well as coating their arrowheads and dart tips in it for hunting. It has also been used as a fertility enhancer among South American tribes and those in Mesoamerica.
The toxin has also been used for centuries in healing. And it should be noted here that in our modern times, it is currently being developed as a treatment for cancer. Australian researchers have found that bufotoxin contains anti-cancer properties, and are looking to export millions of their cane toads to China to further explore the secretions as a way to fight the disease.
Then there is this: researchers have been looking at psychedelics as a way to treat depression and anxiety. Just two years ago, the FDA approved esketamine (a stronger version of ketamine, aka “special K”) to treat depression, and has also granted “breakthrough status” to study the effects of MDMA (ecstasy) on depression and psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”) on PTSD. Who knows? Maybe bufotoxin will be added to the mix.
Toad-licking is also a part of our pop culture. it made its way into an episode of both “Beavis and Butthead” and “The Simpsons” back in the 1990s, and “Family Guy” in 2000; that “Family Guy” episode even had a song about it, “Gotta Give Up the Toad,” in a parody of Grease’s “”You’re the One that I Want.” (View the clip on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?vSQEhBai711o.)
In the meantime, the subject has given both my mother and I tons of entertainment. I’ll ask her about my stepfather’s secret ingredient in the dishes he makes for their potlucks, or if their date night will incorporate any mammoth toads (there is just something about the image of my parents hoisting a dinner plate-sized toad to lick that I find hilarious. Cue Musical Youth: “Pass the cane toad to the left-hand side”).
Thank Heavens she has a great sense of humor. And that she can now laugh because she actually understands the jokes.
Cane toads. Informational and entertaining.
Stephanie Ratts GRISSOM is a Herald correspondent.