Toad away

A Sunday morning. Around dawn. I'm the first one awake. I pad into the kitchen to make coffee, my eyes barely open, the light dim. And a huge brown toad hip-hops across the tile floor.

The following thoughts flit through my mind in seconds: Holy Minerva, a RAT! No, a toad. A fat toad loose in the house. Quick Sunday School flashback to a plague of toads. But there's only one here. And it looks familiar. Oh, yes, it's the toad my sons have been carrying around in a jar. They named him Billy. He's escaped. Somewhere, a jar lies open, its grass and dirt spilled on the carpet. There he goes. I should catch him. Drat, he went behind the washing machine. Quick, put the dog outside before he eats the toad and spends the rest of the day yarking on the carpet. Where's the jar? Where are the boys? Where's the toad now?

I caught him, of course, though it took on the proportions of a safari before he was finally back in his jar, hopping and banging his head on the lid. Guess that's how he escaped and he was going with what worked for him before. Not a lot of other options if you're a toad and you have a brain the size of a lentil. It's not like he was going to start tying sheets together to shimmy out a window.

Later, I persuaded the boys to free Billy. They found a nice home for him in the side yard, where the local insects congregate. I'm sure Billy will be very happy there.

We have two boys under the age of 10 at our house, which means we also have a revolving menagerie of animals living in jars and buckets and boxes. Boys are irresistibly drawn to wildlife. Billy's only the latest victim, er, specimen.

The experiences haven't always been pleasant, even if they are educational. A few years ago, the boys nursed along a whole bucketful of tadpoles, watching them sprout legs and slowly grow into tiny toads. Then a horrific thunderstorm pounded most of the little amphibians into the mud. The funerals lasted all day. Only one toad survived the storm -- the boys named him Billy -- and he escaped a few days later, causing tears and worry and grief.

Then my eldest wanted a box turtle. I bought one at a store and built a makeshift pen in a corner of the yard for him. They named him Speedy. Within days, he'd escaped, never to be seen again, though we spent endless hours probing the shrubbery for him. I told the kids they should've named him Houdini. They didn't think that was funny.

A week or so before the new, improved Billy arrived at our house, the boys briefly enjoyed the company of a full-grown horned toad they found near their grandparents' home. They named him Squint. He was a big hit at show-and-tell at school. Then my sons set his bucket outside so Squint could catch some rays. They put a brick in the bucket so he'd have a warm place to recline. Squint used the brick as a ramp and did an Evel Knievel out of the bucket and was gone. Tears, fears, worries that the dog would eat Squint. I found Squint two days later, while mowing the lawn. Fortunately, I got him before the mower did. I returned Squint to the boys with the condition that they free him soon so he could live happily ever after. They gladly complied. It's OK, apparently, to free a beast so he can return to the wild. But if he escapes on his own, it's an insult.

I've resigned myself to the idea there will be animals in the house, thumping and scritching and begging to be set free. Since I'm the parent who works at home, it'll sometimes fall to me to feed them or free them or find them running loose. I've only insisted on one rule: No snakes. I'm terrified of snakes, a product of growing up in Arkansas, where there's a poisonous viper every six feet or so.

They bring a snake into the house, and that's the day I'll head for the hills, hopping and banging against the door until I escape.

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