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Nature vs. nurture


Toad Wars

Nature called the other day, and it had nothing to do with finding a rest room. The weather had at last warmed up, and I decided to take an off-road hike through a wooded reservation. Bushes and trees were budding and blossoming, and skunk cabbage poked up like green napkins folded into triangles for some formal banquet.

As I walked along a trail by a reedy river, something rustled through the underbrush. I was shocked when I thought I saw a very long snake—with a head the size of a baseball! Its black-and-yellow skin identified it as a common garter snake, but…

Looking closer, I saw that the snake’s huge “head” was, in fact, a plump brown toad it was attempting to swallow whole. The toad—very much alive—was heaving its chest and thrashing to escape. The snake had swallowed the toad’s left rear leg, fastening its jaws around it. What should I do?

The snake couldn’t swallow the big toad, but neither could the toad break free. If the toad had been dead, I would have watched the meal like a nature documentary. But the woods no doubt teemed with edible insects that would satisfy the snake’s hunger, and a helpless animal was slowly suffering.

Gently, avoiding its eyes, I prodded open the snake’s jaws with a stick. Stubbornly, it seemed to glare at me—and cling to the toad’s leg. Then, at last, the snake let go and went slithering away, leaving the toad, its leg bleeding, squatting among the twigs and dry leaves.

Using a handy Chipotle napkin, I picked up the toad, one of the largest I’d seen, with long, dark claws on its rear legs. I planned to carry it away from “the scene of the crime,” in case the snake returned for a second attack.

I’d lugged it fifty feet up a small hill when it began squirming with surprising strength. So I put it down onto the forest floor, where it sat, breathing and blinking.

Sometimes, nature seems motherly; sometimes, it seems wicked-step-motherly. As caregivers, we know its contrasting personalities. We ration our strength to do what we must, and what we can. Our compassion—for man and beast alike—is the “compass” that helps us navigate these changes. The struggle plays out--on the sunniest of days, in the quietest of woods. 



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