Game wardens seize illegal African frogs

September 11, 2008 8:59:05 PM PDT
Authorities who seized scores of illegal African clawed frogs from Nevada residents say they have traced the creatures -- banned because of their potential for ecological damage -- to a company that sells tadpoles over the Internet. It turns out the tadpoles from Florida-based Grow-a-Frog -- which markets them as an educational tool -- are illegal in Nevada and at least 10 other U.S. states, authorities said.

Agents seized 119 of the frogs from three Reno homes last month and publicized the raids to get the word out they're illegal. Inundated with calls, they recovered another 68 this week in seven Nevada counties.

Florida-based Grow-a-Frog called the shipments to Nevada a mistake and agreed to pay a $3,600 fine and stop sending the unwelcome guests, said Capt. Cameron Waithman, the Nevada Department of Wildlife warden who led the months-long investigation.

Banned as an illegal invasive species, the creatures live mostly in the water and grow as large as bullfrogs. They can destroy ecosystems if they escape by voraciously eating native fish, Waithman said.

"I know a whole lot more about frogs now than I did a month ago," said Waithman, who more typically investigates poaching of elk and antelope.

Nevadans who knowingly possess Africa clawed frogs are subject to six months in jail and a $500 fine, but Waithman said most owners didn't know what they had. Some expressed genuine concern about the environmental threat, while others "just said, 'I'm not going to jail for these frogs."'

"This was never about writing tickets to people who were shipped these frogs," said Rob Buonamici, the department's chief game warden. "This investigation came together very quickly and the public has been onboard since day one."

At least 10 other states outlaw the African clawed frogs without a special permit -- Arizona, California, Hawaii, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Virginia and Washington.

Company officials cooperated in the investigation, officials said.

"It's not just an ordinary frog!" says Grow-a-Frog's Web site. "Perfect for class projects, science fairs, and anyone who appreciates the wonder of nature. Grows arms and legs, then MORPHS into a little baby froglet." It doesn't specify what type of frog is involved, something Waithman said he hoped would change.

Grow-a-Frog officials did not respond to e-mails Wednesday and Thursday from The Associated Press seeking comment. A woman who answered the company's order line Thursday evening told a reporter no one was available to comment and to call back on Friday. She declined to give her name.

NDOW spokesman Edwin Lyngar said that the president of the company, Paul Rudnick, said he was aware that the frogs are illegal in Nevada and that a mistake was made.

"He was very apologetic and very cooperative," Lyngar told AP.

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