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Bona Fide Scientific Research

My children have turned their plastic sandbox-pool combo kit into either the Greenbriar Amphibian Research Facility (at best) or the Gulag for Frogs (at worst).

One side of the plastic clamshell, slathered with mud, acorns, and sticks, is for dry-land training; the flip side is a lap pool of clean hose water. Never mind the arsenic, which permeates the bedrock beneath our house.

As the captured frogs kick and glide over the smooth surface, I can’t help but anthropomorphize them. Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad differ on whether human-like amphibians should wear swimming suits. Frog dips in naked, but Toad wears a conservative 1920s-style striped men’s suit, covered to his webbed feet. At the end of the story, he becomes the laughingstock of the turtle, the lizards, the snake, the field mouse, and Frog.

As I write this, my kids now at school for the day, five Green or Pickerel frogs play their namesake game, Leapfrog, jumping and slipping off one another’s backs, in seemingly collaborative but more likely self-preservation efforts to reach the lip of their holding tank, an old garbage pail filled with rocks larger than my fist.

Being neglected while their child scientists busy themselves in laboratories elsewhere is one of two chances for the frogs’ survival. Upon his return, Gus will examine the binocular-eyed creatures by squeezing their elastic chests or by dangling them from their crocheted feet. He is known to study their triple eyelids with dirt-caked fingernails, trying to peel back the transparent layer.

Sometimes he and Frank teach their frogs to jump – as if the skill were not in-born – by bouncing them along the patio table like checkers on a gameboard.

Fern even joined the boys this week. She ladled two frogs into a clear plastic Tupperware container, fastened the lid (with holes popped out for oxygen), and headed up the street. “I’m taking them for a walk,” she said, tucking the box under her armpit like a purse without handles.

When we moved to our current home near three creeks and a wetland – “God’s Country” – catching frogs or toads is exactly what I’d romanticized as our new family existence. Screen-free entertainment. Until the recent intensification of the so-called Frog Project, I was at peace as I watched my kids “return to nature.” I was enjoying the simpler version of motherhood for which we wax nostalgic.

But in Ryan’s nine years of criminal defense, he has directly or peripherally witnessed a range of animal cruelty cases, and so, at the very back of my mind, I had to admit, I felt uneasy in a subconscious kind of way. Then, just recently, as part of his casework, he needed to re-visit chapter 951 of the Wisconsin Statutes, “Crimes Against Animals,” and was in the context of our life at home, quite stunned to closely read and dissect the true legal meaning of the language.

Chapter 951 defines “animals” as any warm-blooded creature (except a human being), a reptile, or an amphibian. And “cruel” is defined as “causing unnecessary and excessive pain or suffering or unjustifiable injury or death” to any of those so-defined animals, including frogs and toads.

I began to cautiously flip through a rolodex of memories and “animals” our kids had already killed in their short but sweet lifetimes.

For example, before Fern, Frank, and Gus learned to catch frogs – by trawling the creek beds clotted with Cattails – they would catch toads in our back yard instead. Toads were dry, leathery, and easier to clasp one-handed. Whenever Ryan mowed the lawn, toads by the half-dozen would bounce up onto the hot hood of the machine, barely escaping the blade.

He’d call the kids to collect, and arguably save, the survivors of yard maintenance, but neither Fern nor the boys were serious scientists (or dictators) yet. A few times the children left their toad habitats – plastic buckets or bins – in the sun too long, and I’d find the creatures baked like Shrinky Dinks on a cookie sheet.

An animal rights activist might call this irresponsible; worse yet, a prosecutor could, within the reasonable limits of language, call this a crime.

Chapter 951 further mandates that those who keep animals provide proper shelter from direct sunlight and failure to do so, even negligently, is criminal. But perhaps buried in the language of the statue is the kids’ loophole. I am grateful to say that an exception is made for “bona fide scientific research.”

But was the “Frog Project,” ongoing and ever in-flux, involving as many as eight neighborhood children, three of whom belonged to me, legitimate research, I wondered?

While visiting one of many Wisconsin nature centers this summer, an Australian naturalist regaled us with stories of growing up with Sydney Funnel-web Spiders and enormous Bare-Backed Fruit Bats, which she’d scare away from her garden by banging on the window glass. She lamented recent criticisms she received for allowing children to handle tadpoles – some of which died – during field research she hosted for area schools.

“If the children don’t handle the tadpoles themselves, what would be the point?” she said. “I learned to love nature by handling animals in the wild. And now I’m a preservationist. It all comes full circle.”

This makes intuitive sense, I reasoned. If children don’t develop a passion for the creatures leap-frogging through our environment, why would they ever want to save it? Of course, intuitive logic or appeals to emotion do not always hold water in a court of law.

I learned recently that frog populations have declined dramatically since my own childhood of the 1980s. Animal rights activists advocate saving the lives of frogs now through digital dissections (dissection on a computer) as opposed to the hands-on scalpel-and-Formaldehyde version. I suppose this is the kind of screen time that gets tallied in the “technology is good” column, along with Chromebooks for school, which our kids use almost exclusively for group chats past bedtime.

Any person who intentionally or negligently violates any section of chapter 951, if or when determined not to fall under the guise of “bona fide scientific research” is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor. Any person who intentionally violates 951.02 resulting in the mutilation, disfigurement or death of an animal, is guilty of a Class E felony.

I did mention not one but two chances for the frogs’ survival. The first was of their own determination and skill. How high can they jump?

The second is through human intervention. Leo, now eleven, has matured to the point of conscience. “Mom,” he screamed all summer long. “Those frogs are going to die.”

When Fern, Frank, and Gus ventured inside for a snack, he would secretly release their frogs and later deny it. We knew the truth, but we removed ourselves from the fray. One evening, in fact, Frank and Gus had forgotten about their overflow bin of frogs in the garage. When I peered in, the speckled amphibians appeared to be sinking. I worried they were dead, but when I nudged them, they squirmed.

“Leo,” I hissed and beckoned him toward me from the driveway where he was shooting hoops.

Leo cupped one, and I the other. My guy (so-determined based on the size of his eardrums) was slick and strong, twitching his muscled legs against my palms, which I’d clasped into a safe little tent, as we ran away from our home and toward the creek.

When we released them simultaneously into the wet culvert at Deer Run, our felonious guilt leapt into the dark tunnel, and all that remained was a greasy residue on the skin of our hands.

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