Bay Journal

Tadpole Mom

Raising frogs isn't as easy as it looks.

  • By Rona Kobell on April 18, 2014
This is one of Maya's tadpoles, patiently waiting to grow legs, absorb its tail, and become a frog.  (Rona Kobell)


I used to have a recurring dream that I had a dog and it died.

I'd wake up in sweats, worried and shaking. How could I have neglected my dog?

But I've never had a dog. Never had a pet, actually. My parents had four kids and my dad considered a dog a waste of money. Once a year, we'd get a goldfish from a carnival and it would die. That was it. No hamster, no gerbils, no bunnies, no kittens. Later, when we moved out, my parents built a fish pond that remains to this day. I guess they figured the fish didn't suck up too much money. And fish food is cheap compared to college tuition.

As a parent, my own stance on pets is more nuanced. I'm not ready for a dog, but I try to let my older daughter follow her interests. She loves nature, and the small animals she finds in it. We've raised ladybugs, mealworms and butterflies, and we're getting ready to raise some praying mantises. Even if these ventures are a bit of work forme, it's worth it to see the wonder on her face as the insects metamorphose. When she grows up, she says, she wants to be a bug scientist.

Recently, some of our neighbors moved to a house that backs to the Loch Raven Reservoir, and they invited us over. They have a pond full of tadpoles. Maya fished some out and asked if we could take them home. A negotiation ensued, with my husband advocating for just one and Maya wanting five. We settled on three.

We went to PetSmart - a store where I had never been before - and bought a tank, some gravel, and a few toys. The tadpoles seemed listless, unhappy. And the water smelled. We went back to PetSmart and the salesman told us for three we probably needed a bigger tank, with a filter. And a gravel vacuum to clean the tank once a week. And food. And a water cleaner.

We bought the bigger tank. But the filter didn't work. I took it back to PetSmart and the salesman told me I had to completely submerge the filter. I did. It still didn't work. Neither did the vacuum.

Rather than lug all that stuff back to PetSmart for my fourth visit in a week, I began cleaning out the tank myself. Each time, it takes about an hour and it is stinky. But I told myself it wouldn't be much longer - after all, don't these things get legs pretty soon?

Not soon enough, apparently.

I was interviewing Scott Smith about ranavirus, an illness that is killing about half of the Chesapeake Bay region's frogs, when he began telling me that one vector for spreading the disease is moving infected animals around.

I told him about our tadpoles. I wondered if they were at risk for the virus. With Maya's help, we got the tadpoles to model for some snapshots, which I sent to Smith.

The good news? They looked pretty healthy, and as long as I kept the nets clean and didn't put any other fish in there they'd be ok.

But the bad news? They were nowhere near ready to grow up. Late spring or early summer, Smith said.

We were going to have to keep them alive until then.

It's been almost three weeks.

Already, I can see the wisdom of my father's reasoning. I've spent about $100 at PetSmart. Last weekend, when we went out of town, I had to find someone to look after the tadpoles. Do I call our regular babysitter? Do I pay her? Eventually, we asked a family who lives behind us - a family that also inherited some tadpoles from the Loch Raven pond. They had three daughters who found it exciting - even though they noted our tank was stinky.

Keeping the tadpoles alive is hard work. And yes, I should insist that my daughter do most of it. But lifting the tank and bailing the smelly water is a task best left to an adult, or we risk major spillage and more of a mess. So I generally do it myself. She feeds the tadpoles and checks on their growth. I still have to clean the tank, the rocks and the toys. (My husband told me, "I was going to do it, but you're the one who knows how.")

But the payoff will be when the tadpoles become frogs, and we return them to their ancestral home in Loch Raven. Not only will we have gotten to watch nature and science in action, but we will also be contributing to the Chesapeake Bay. A healthy frog population not only heralds spring with its singular song; it also keeps the rest of aquatic life in delicate balance.

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About Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Baltimore Sun. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Read more articles by Rona Kobell


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