Atul Gawende and the Cane Toad

Running along the road in the early mornings through the sleeping town and out through the canefields I ruminate on Gawande’s important recent work, ‘Being Mortal’. I think of the quick and the dead and I think of the slowing that comes to the quick before they join the dead. 

Before me, beside me, ahead and behind lie cane toads, flattened by motor cars. Quick as they were but yesterday, they were not quick enough. Now they lie about me, very dead.


How, I wonder, does the cane toad die? I mean in nature, without cars, wheels and tarmacadam? Does Old Toad embrace his kin, exchange farewells, lie down and, like the stoic Inuit, wait? Does he – or do his relatives – euthanase him with their poison? It is to the merit of Dr Gawande that my thoughts soar to such heights in the mellow time before sunrise.


Back at the hospital I ask my fellow doctor, ‘How does the cane toad die when the motor car won’t put him out of his misery?’

Dr Danny is a Queenslander. He knows. Over ten minutes he enlightens me: ‘Scientists introduced cane toads to Queensland to defeat the cane beetle that was eating the crop. The idea failed – wrong toad, wrong beetles. Both thrived. The toad multiplied, spread throughout the waterways and headed west to despoil Arnhem Land and the Top End. 

Cane toads became so numerous they even outnumbered the next most prevalent pest, the Grey Nomad. Growing up in Bundaberg I never saw a road free of toads. There’d be thirty between our front door and the gate. They love Queensland. They feed on our lizards, our insects and our own frogs. Our frogs are cute. The toads are not.


‘But here’s the interesting thing. They’re dying out. There are roads where you mightn’t see a single toad. It’s almost eerie.’


Is it the motor car, I wonder?


‘No, not the car. No human agency can take the credit. That’s not for lack of trying. People carry golf clubs and practise their driving on the toads. They freeze them, which is said to be merciful. From time to time the ‘papers offer a prize for the greatest number of frozen toads. The Innisfail Advocate presents the winner with a voucher for a banquet of frogs’ legs at the local French restaurant.


All of this turns out to be a token gesture. None of it slowed the marchof the toad north and west. And the toad had no natural enemies. Birds would swoop, peck and die. The dorsal poison glands killed them. Man’s best friends died like flies: I mean small dogs; they’d bite and froth at the mouth. I had to wash out the mouth of my Grannie’s King Charles Cavalier whenever I went to stay with her. The dog never learned.


‘But the crow did. Crows swooped, upended the toads and bit their bellies, a poison-free zone. Toads died, crows crowed. The magpies watched all this and learned to do the same. Goodnight, sweet toad.’


Bloody still in tooth and claw, Nature operates with impartial grimness. But my question remains unanswered: what End of Life Directive does Old Toad give his offspring? How does the toad die? What lessons can we learn from this supremely ugly, universally loathed creature? 


Barring sudden death at the hand of man or God, I shall see the day when I will resemble the cane toad, unattractive and an ecological burden. This is the lot of humankind: just as we are born helpless, we return in old age to a state of helplessness some time before the end


We will lie and we will wait. 


Meanwhile, whether by command or uncommanded, the same body fluids will flow, the same needs persist – for company, for care, for loving touch, for music, for flowers, for light and mirth, for the sight of children at play. 

Some good soul or some sour misanthrope or some hired wheeler might wheel us outside into the garden where perchance we’ll sight the cane toad uglifying the scene in all his coarse vitality. And we will envy him.




2 thoughts on “Atul Gawende and the Cane Toad

  1. These are very serious thoughts. I am happy that our planet, and many of its animals, will return to homeostasis when we humans have done our worst. It’s a chilly spring day here, but i feel the need to go and do some digging while my old bones and sinews are still up for it.


    • Hilary

      We humans are the ugliest toads on the planet

      But what a shame for the planet once we are gone

      We are the sole species that creates poems – although whales and dolphins sing – and only we tell jokes, paint the I Mona Lisa, tell fibs, write moby dick

      Our contributions are those of pen and sword, mind and spirit

      We are not the sole creators of beauty and artificers of grace

      Once we are gone, spiders will still spin their wondrous webs



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