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No, people aren’t licking toads in national parks

A National Park Service employee photographed this Sonoran desert toad at the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. (Provided by the National Park Service)
Humorous Halloween post intended to warn people not to mess with wildlife was taken a little too literally by news outlets across the country

It’s hard to find a warning issued by the National Park Service that gained more traction. Too bad it was completely fabricated.

The agency’s Oct. 31 Facebook post imploring visitors to “please refrain from licking” the large Sonoran desert toad common in the Southwest echoed across thousands of news outlets. Google “park service toad licking” and you get 1.7 million hits. Tens of thousands of news outlets – including the most prestigious in the world – repeated the warning.

But a records request of agency employee reports detailing any and all interactions between park property visitors and the toads yielded zero records.

The Facebook post “was not prompted by any specific incident,” said Park Service FOIA Officer Charis Wilson, who visited with staff members in the office that made the original Facebook post.

The post described the Sonoran desert toad, also known as the Colorado river toad, as one of the largest toads found in North America and described its croak as a “weak low-pitched toot lasting less than a second.”

“These toads have prominent parotoid glands that secrete a potent toxin. It can make you sick if you handle the frog or get the poison in your mouth,” the Facebook post reads. “As we say with most things you come across in a national park, whether it be a banana slug, unfamiliar mushroom, or a large toad with glowing eyes in the dead of night, please refrain from licking. Thank you. Toot!”

The post included a motion sensor photograph of a toad “staring into your soul” at Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

The agency’s tongue-in-cheek post echoed across the world. It was hearty fodder for the jokesters, too.

“A more honest headline would be the National Park Service throws up hands and says ‘I guess we have to actually say this out loud now: Stop licking the frogs, ya dinguses,’” Stephen Colbert said during his Nov. 10 Late Show monologue. “As you have guessed these nature-loving idiots are licking these frogs in an attempt to get high.”

The Colorado Sun sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the National Park Service earlier this month, asking for all notes or reports detailing “any human interaction” with the Sonoran desert toad, which secretes a psychoactive compound that, when dried and smoked, delivers a psychedelic experience. If the Park Service was compelled to warn visitors about the dangers of the toad, surely rangers had documented a litany of offenses by toad molesters. Alas, there are none.

There are no records from any of the Park Service’s 13 properties in and adjacent to the Southwest’s Sonoran Desert detailing humans hunting, capturing, touching or licking the toads. The agency’s Incident Management Analysis and Reporting System has zero records of visitors ever harassing toads. So it was a joke, essentially.

“Rather it was intended to convey, through humor, a general message of not messing with wildlife you come across in the park,” Wilson said in an email to The Sun.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.