photo © Chris Bernstein

On a warm day in early May, my son and his friend came barreling into the house, all excited because they’d caught a toad. “You really need to come see it, Mom!”

This past year, toad sightings have become a common occurrence around here. At least one toad (perhaps a whole family) makes its home in the rock garden at the base of our driveway. For us, toads are not difficult to find.
But to contain them? That’s another story. One day Abel – very studiously — constructed a “toad trap” – a precarious assemblage of stacked rocks and small boards that he thought would prevent a toad from hopping away. It didn’t — but it offered a cool, shady shelter, at least.
Abel is six. One of his favorite things to do is to make “Snake River.” There is a small patch of land between the deck and the rock garden, through which runs the shallow drainage ditch that Abel and my father dug a couple years ago. Abel likes to turn on the hose and let the water run through the ditch. Once there’s enough standing water to play in, he turns it off again.
The “river” is lined on one side with smooth stones, with a healthy swath of violets and pachysandra on the other. Toads seems to find this environment ideal, despite the plastic boats, Star Wars figures and other little-boy detritus that often can be found there. Abel’s toad trap stands on an “island” in the middle of the “river.”
Traps of rocks and wood are one thing, but those contained in buckets are another. When Abel and his friend led me out of the house and down to the banks of Snake River, they very proudly presented a 5-gallon plastic bucket, which they had outfitted with two inches of water, some rocks, and some freshly-picked grass and green leaves.
“He has food, and water, and a place to sit,” they explained. They were beaming.
I sighed inwardly. This wasn’t going to be easy.
The interior of the bucket was indeed a thoughtfully-constructed haven for a small reptile. It was also a death trap.
I looked over at Abel and his friend, so excited to have caught the toad, and so pleased with what they’d done to accommodate their new “pet.”
I looked down at the toad. It appeared to be terrified.
“Guys,” I said. “We need to talk.”
That toad might very well have been strong enough to leap out of the bucket and save himself. But maybe not.
As much as I love the fact that my son has no qualms about catching and holding — and even playing with — things like toads, these situations make me think hard about the line between fun and cruelty. It can be so enriching to observe nature, but once we begin to interfere with it, all sorts of ethical questions arise. In any situation, we must consider the other person (or thing) involved.
“We’re going to have to let the toad go,” I explained. “If it stays in this bucket, you will be able to play with it whenever you like, and that would be fun.”
Both of the boys were paying strict attention.
“But this toad probably has a mother and a father, a sister or a brother, or even babies of its own. And if it stays in this bucket, it won’t be able to see its family again.”
Eyes downcast, the boys nodded. They got it. There was no need to say more.
And so we tipped the bucket and set the toad free. It splashed to the middle of Snake River, a little dazed. Pausing for a couple minutes to look around, it then hopped off toward the shelter of the violet patch. I hope it comes back.
by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent
May 2012
Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit To browse 15 years of Nature (Human and Otherwise) columns, visit