A Cane Toad Nearly Killed Her Dog — Now She Makes Money Hunting Them
Jeannine Tilford has plenty of reasons for seeking vengeance on thousands of toxic Bufo toads stalking Florida backyards.
As a herpetologist — a reptile and amphibian expert and enthusiast — she watched in horror as native species like the rat snake dwindled in the 1990s after the invasive poisonous toads moved into their territory. As a veterinary technician during the same period, she treated dozens of dogs that had come in contact with the paralyzing poison the toads secrete from the back of their heads.
And, on a more personal front, she nearly lost her Jack Russell terrier to toad toxin in 1998. One night, after tending to the horses in her barn, she knew something was up with Smudge.
“It was scary to watch,” said Tilford. “His eyes were dilated — it looked like he drank a six pack.”
In March 2017, roughly two decades after that run-in, the South Florida science teacher launched Toad Busters. While the chance to make Florida backyards safer by catching — and killing — toads was a major motivation, she needed some extra income to supplement her salary.
Right now, Tilford charges $65 per job and works four or five jobs a night in South Florida. That translates to between $260 and $325 a night. She hunts five nights a week.
And she’s looking to expand.
Bufo Toads Bust Their Way Into Florida Neighborhoods
Bufo toads were released in Florida to eat pests that were gnawing the important sugar cane crop, among other reasons. But, like most human attempts at species-on-species control, it ended in disaster.
The four-to-10-inch, brown, lumpy amphibians, also known as cane toads, don’t have many predators in Florida — besides someone like Tilford. That has allowed the non-native species to proliferate since its first sightings, which occured in the 1930s, according to a United States Geological Survey database.
While native Florida species like gopher tortoises thrive in the unculled Florida wild, cane toads are right at home in new subdivisions. That puts them right next to many household pets.
“They are really a socioeconomic issue in Florida because of peoples’ dogs,” said Steve Johnson, a professor in the University of Florida’s Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation.
As of two years ago, cane toads called South Florida and a large swath of the middle of Florida home. Now, thanks to an explosion in new development, the invasive amphibians’ reach keeps on expanding.
According to a Penny Hoarder analysis of three databases from the USGS, the Florida Museum of Natural History and the University of Georgia Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health, Bufo toads have been spotted as far northwest as the Panhandle (though Johnson has doubts about that one) and as far northeast as the Jacksonville metro area.
“We’re basically creating habitat for a lot of introduced species,” Johnson said. “All the evidence points to the fact that they’re still slowly expanding in some places faster than others.”
That’s bad news for Fido. But a good opportunity for Tilford.
From Paycheck to Paycheck to Thriving Bufo Toad Buster
Tilford grew up working in her dad’s pet shop and eventually started a reptile-import business of her own.
For fun, she and her now-ex-husband hunted reptiles, frogs and toads most nights, catching and releasing species like leopard frogs, green tree frogs and rat snakes. That might not sound like the most romantic date night, but Tilford always enjoyed doing it. Plus she’s really, really good.
After getting out of the reptile business, she eventually became a teacher in the early 2000s.
But she was essentially living paycheck-to-paycheck on a $43,000 annual salary teaching environmental science at Palm Beach Gardens High School.
Tilford made some extra cash singing with her country band, Casey Raines Band. But raising her now 16-year-old son without child support meant foregoing vacations, new clothes and new shoes.
“I just covered my expenses,” Tilford said. “It left no money to do anything.”
So, last March, she decided to take her skill for finding, identifying and snagging frogs and toads and launch Toad Busters. With a $2,000 initial investment, she was able to make about $20,000 in revenue and $6,000 in profit last year.
“It was always in the back of my mind, but I thought it was way farfetched,” said Tilford, who now has a Class III trapping license from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “Are people really going to pay me to catch toads?”
Yes, they were.
“This is a little bit of a niche market and people are realizing there’s a demand,” said Johnson, the UF professor.
If you Google around, it’s hard to find more than a handful of companies that do what Tilford’s does. Johnson said he had heard of regular pest control companies offering the service, but noted that this type of work still seems really rare — especially given the growth of the problem.
“This year I’ll be making more money,” Tilford said.
And she’s diversifying by starting research on the New Guinea flatworm, another nonnative species. (Do NOT Google a picture of the New Guinea flatworm.)
Last year, she was able to take her son on their first vacation in 16 years. They basked in the sun in the Cayman Islands.
On the Prowl for Bufo Toads
Tilford told me how one muggy night in mid-July she slipped on her reflective vest covered in red LED lights, a pair of gloves and a headlamp. Little did she know she was about to see one of the biggest hauls of Bufo toads she’d had all year at a home with a wild backyard in north Miami Beach. (Her all-time record is 136 toads in one night.)
But first, to explain the outfit:
Tilford used to wear a regular reflective vest, but she freaked out some homeowners when they would see just a headlamp flashing through their windows (they couldn’t see the vest, since it only reflected light).
After homeowners called the police on her a few times, she knew she needed to change her attire. So she added the red LEDs to make herself more visible — and less threatening.
“I look like a Christmas tree,” Tilford said. “Now instead of people calling the cops, they just come out laughing.”
That night in north Miami Beach presented Tilford with a “toad mosaic,” with dozens clustered throughout the yard.
“We took out 100 toads in less than 40 minutes,” she said. “And I tell you they were some of the largest toads I’ve ever seen.”
As a matter of practice, Tilford and her team of four employees use gloves and bait nets to nab toads and throw them into sacks. They make sure to keep their skin covered because cane toad poison is toxic to humans and to pets; in extreme cases, it can cause cardiac arrest and death.
After an initial consultation, the homeowner will usually sign up for a $65 toad busting every two weeks. Each session usually takes less than an hour.
“You’re basically like the landlord coming out and evicting any new toads,” she said.
Once the amphibians are back at Toad Busters HQ, Tilford applies 20%-strength Benzocaine (a local anesthetic) to their bellies, and they drift off into toad slumber. Then she puts them in a freezer, where they die humanely in their sleep. No, not next to the ice cream and frozen pizza.
“I’m not going to lie,” Tilford said with a chuckle. “When I was in the reptile business, I did have frozen rats next to my frozen chicken, but I didn’t have a lot of people over for dinner.”
Expanding the Bufo Toad Business and Advice for Entrepreneurs
Like the ever-expanding Bufo toad habitat, Tilford has plans to increase her toad-busting reach across Florida
Right now, she’s deciding whether to franchise Toad Busters or simply hire new staff to work in different parts of the state. Still, she plans to remain at Palm Beach High School for the time being.
As for advice for aspiring entrepreneurs — or toad trappers — Tilford stresses the importance of the business side of things. She made sure to get a trapping license to build trust with clients and has conducted background checks on staff and insured her business.
“That was the stuff I didn’t really think about at first,” she said.
Aspiring toad catchers don’t really need a license, she notes. Hunting at night is your best bet to find the most bufo toads — she generally works until midnight.
Also, when you’re thinking about launching a business, the less familiar you are with the service, the greater the risk. For Tilford, an experienced toad-catcher, the $2,000 startup costs didn’t pose a huge risk.
And, given the population influx and new development in Florida, that $2,000 will pay off in the long run, since Bufo toads are here to stay.
“The problem is going to get worse before it gets any better,” said Johnson. “I’m certain of that.”
Alex Mahadevan is a data journalist at The Penny Hoarder.