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Summer of Frogs

Alum remembers Sticker, Spike, Needle and Thorn — the horned frogs she raised for a summer.

Summer of Frogs

Alum remembers Sticker, Spike, Needle and Thorn — the horned frogs she raised for a summer.

I would not want to re-live my entire childhood. But sometimes we’re blessed with a chance to taste the sweetness of simpler times and remember some of the core ingredients that define who we are. For me, that “second childhood” came on the heels of four little barbed critters who crawled from the tall, sandy rows of a North Texas farm right into my heart.

As funny as it sounds, my family moved to Colleyville to farm.

Though a far cry from the posh, palatial mansions and sprawling estates of today, the Colleyville of the 1930s was rife with farming potential. At least that’s the way Grandpa saw it.

But he didn’t live long enough to see his farming dream grow to its full potential. Hard times, illness and, ultimately, Grandpa’s early death whittled away at the Stowe farmland.

The small acreage I grew up on was only a parcel of the original family farm, but it offered plenty of deep, sandy rows of garden to keep me gritty most of the early years of my life — and to attract such fascinating creatures as horned lizards (okay, frogs) and the red ants they relished.

I spent hours driving my little cars and trucks, shovels and buckets (I had little time for dolls or dresses) through the sandy mounds. But nothing delighted me more than snatching up a passing horned frog and making friends.

But the older I grew, Colleyville’s population seemed to blossom at the expense of its farm and pasture lands. Maybe it was a combination of the two, but I came across fewer and fewer frogs as the years passed. It was then — one summer late in my college career when I was teetering on the edge of the real world, well past adolescence but not quite a full-blown adult — that I was given a very special gift.

My mom’s side of the family lives just north of Denton, which is home to many farms and ranches. Many of those sandy acres were crawling with horned frogs in the early ’90s. One of my young — and very entrepreneurial — cousins launched a horned frog adoption program of sorts, the kind of practice that would make the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and horned lizard conservationists keel right over today. He charged a $2 catcher’s fee and was only limited by what he could carry in his pockets.

My Aunt Jessie Pembroke had a flair for creative gifts. Her daughter — Le’ann Pembroke Callihan ’90 — and I were roommates at TCU. We had grown up the best of cousins — and had only encouraged each other’s tomboy tendencies. Knowing my history, Aunt Jess got a steal of a deal on a birthday present for me: four horned frogs. Eight bucks went a long way that year. Not even diamonds would have pleased me more than those four little bristly critters.

Needle was the largest — the gentle giant of the foursome. Thorn was the widest and most motherly; she seemed to have a nurturing way with the others. (I just assumed from her nature that she was a female. I later learned that female horned frogs tend to be wider than males.)

Spike was the smallest but seemed to have the biggest attitude, textbook Napoleon complex. He never seemed to notice he was about five times smaller than Needle, even when Needle used him as a step stool. In fact, whenever the four would build a horned frog ladder to peer over the edge of their sandbox, Spike always served as the bottom rung, with the weight of the other three burying the tiny frog into the sand. And then there was Sticker.

Though smaller than Needle and Thorn, he seemed the most athletic (judging from their scampering and climbing efforts) and the natural leader of the pack.

But what amazed me most was that he seemed just as interested in us as we were in him. He was always eager to scramble onto an open palm when it was offered. Whenever I would hold him in the palm of my hand, close to my eyes, he seemed to take in every detail of my face, just as I admired the intricacies of his stickery head, body and tail.

His looks were so fierce, but his demeanor was so gentle. Sticker even seemed to enjoy a nice stroke along his head and neck horns. As we held the little frogs in our hot palms and stroked their little thorns (always just one direction, of course), they would press their tummies against the heat of our skin. But when I would pet Sticker, he wagged his thorny little tail back and forth. The way we went on about it, you’d think he had learned to talk.

Feeding time was the only downside to our new friends, from my perspective. In the wild, horned frogs are reputed connoisseurs of red ants. But none of us — Mom and Pop particularly — were thrilled at the prospect of inviting ants into our home. Horned frogs as houseguests are one thing. Ants are quite another. So I searched for less pesky options. A lady at a local pet shop suggested insects, crickets and worms as tasty substitutes.

I admit I had outgrown much of my tomboy tendencies, so my niece and nephews — Katie, Matthew and Nathan — were appointed official insect and cricket catchers. But the worms were worse. I bought frozen mealworms, I believe they were called, and kept them in the freezer. In the house. Twice a day, I shoved my squeamishness aside and dished out these delicacies.

The small bugs we collected weren’t a worry. They couldn’t scale the walls of my little homemade sandbox. As for the frozen worms, I just poured a pile of them from a soil-and-worm-filled Styrofoam container, and they slowly squirmed back to life under the warmth of the lamp shining over the sandbox.

Katie, Matthew and Nathan would squeal with delight as the little frogs grabbed lunch with a lightning quick snatch of the tongue. Sticker, Spike, Needle and Thorn were so fascinating to watch as they nonchalantly moved closer to their prey — never looking them straight on — and then suddenly yanked them out of the sand in one quick, big bite.

If the family was watching a movie, the tub of frogs was right there with us. If I was gone and the kids were playing, the tub was nearby. When Melissa and I were outside working on our tans, Sticker, Spike, Needle and Thorn were right there with us, soaking up some warm rays.

We never took them out during the hottest times of the day. In the wild, horned frogs enjoy the warmth of a summer morning, but they seek shelter from the scorching sun — just like the rest of us Texans. Of course, the frogs also attracted our cat Josh to investigate the lively crew. As he peered over the side of the sandbox, he seemed quite intrigued with the scampering, rather bony-looking critters. A bit too intrigued, we thought.

Apparently so did the horned frogs. Their mouths dropped open — almost like they were trying to scream, but no sound came out — and they really started darting. Mouths agape, they would dart and then freeze. Dart and then freeze.

I later learned that these were two typical horned frog defense tactics. With their camouflage coloring, they dart and then freeze to give the illusion of disappearing into their surroundings. Flattening out achieves similar effects. (Though the flattening and freezing defense is actually more of a danger on Texas roadways, where many horned frogs bask in the sun, according to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.)

Horned frogs can also can hiss, puff themselves up and shoot blood from their eyes in defense. The more we watched and played with the little frogs, the more we admired them and — as crazy as it may seem — the more we loved them. They didn’t fetch Frisbees, sing us long songs or greet us with sloppy wet kisses like our dogs. Nor did they bring us little “trophies” or just ignore us like Josh did. But they still captured our hearts. But it was only for a season. Their wildness scared me.

I remembered different times when we were kids and we had found an injured or orphaned bird and tried to nurse it back to health or raise it. Despite our gallant efforts, we had few success stories. Part of Mom’s explanation for our loss was that wild animals didn’t fare as well out of the wild. As hard as I tried to give the frogs a variety of food, I knew the cold worms and our catches-of-the-day probably didn’t compare to what they would hunt on their own.

Though the frogs ran around their sandbox — and sometimes our living room — I knew the exercise wasn’t the same as scaling the great sand walls of a huge garden. Though we took them out for plenty of warm sunshine and kept them safe inside from the extreme elements, I knew the routine was not their own. And though they would have been a hit on campus once school started up in the fall, if I kept them, I would be risking their health.

Late that summer, while they would still have plenty of time to prepare for the winter ahead, I said goodbye to Sticker, Spike, Needle and Thorn. Timing-wise, I wasn’t a moment too soon: Horned frogs hibernate from September or October to late April or May, I later learned. Katie, Matthew, Nathan and I lifted them one by one from their cozy sandbox back into the sandy ground they had been plucked from.

They didn’t seem in any particular hurry to leave. Needle and Thorn just sort of wandered off, snatching up an ant here or there. And Spike, true to his nature, tried to climb the side of the house.

But Sticker appeared torn between the sandy world he knew and the new friends he had made. He scampered around a little, but looked back, seeming confused. I picked him up, gave him a little pep talk — had second and third thoughts about setting him back down — petted his horns one last time and let him crawl off my hand back into the dirt. Slowly, he wandered out of our lives.

As the mother of two boys, the stats on the declining population of horned frogs sadden me. It’s not likely that Caden or Jace will ever spot a horned frog scampering across our little garden.

They’ll see them at the zoo or splashed across our TCU mementos, of course. But they probably won’t meet the frogs in their own environment, where they could plant their hands in the sand for the critters to scramble across or where they could gently pet a frog’s thorny back and rub its soft tummy. But at least they’ll have my memories. And Horned Frog pride — TCU style.

As a student, I enjoyed our notoriety of being the only school with a horned frog for a mascot. Though our frog has raised more than one eyebrow along the way, I consider those who question it as simply not having had the opportunity to come nose to nose with our fascinating namesakes.

Unique. Fierce. Quietly confident. Friendly. Gentle. Resourceful. Innovative. Couragous. Inquisitive. Innately able to delight. Sticker, Spike, Needle and Thorn showed me these characteristics in their short stay.

And these continue to be among the features that make TCU Horned Frogs stand above the rest.

Dying breed Horned frogs have been declining in numbers for many years, with experts pointing to loss of habitat, over-collection by the pet trade and the accidental introduction of the imported fire ant, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Today three species of horned frogs are found in Texas: The more common Texas horned lizard is found throughout the state (except extreme East Texas), while the roundtailed and mountain short-horned lizards are restricted to the western areas of the state. The Texas horned lizard was named the official state reptile in 1992. It and the mountain short-horned are both protected under state regulations. Efforts such as those by the Texas chapter of the Horned Lizard Conservation Society are under way to bring the roundtail under that same protective cover. Though it’s illegal now to “own” a horned toad in Texas, you can flash one across your automobile’s license plate. The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department offers a wildlife conservation plate featuring the Texas horned lizard. The “Keep Texas Wild” plate (http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/plate/more.asp) is $25 plus regular registration fees, $20 of which is earmarked to fund wildlife conservation efforts.

Rachel Stowe Master ’91 is a free-lance writer and editor and full-time mom. She and husband Kevin E. Master ’91 (MBA) and their sons live in unincorporated Tarrant County.