When I was a boy, West Texas was teeming with horned lizards or, as we all called them, “horny toads.” They were everywhere. You couldn’t drive down the street without them darting across the road. You couldn’t go outside without seeing several running across your yard.
And then, almost overnight, they vanished.
I’d heard many reasons why the horned lizards disappeared… I’d heard that they were being rounded up for the pet trade (which is horrible since they don’t survive in captivity), I’d heard that it was because of pollution, and I had heard it was because of the infestation of fire ants in the state which, to me, made a lot of sense since their main food is ants and fire ants would easily overpower a horned lizard that picked on the wrong nest.
I’d shared some stories with my children about horny toads. About how you could catch one and, despite its appearance and wild nature, it would let you pet it and prove to be docile. I would tell them about how it could shoot a stream of blood at you if you made it upset (which never happened to me). I would tell about the little critters running wild to my wide-eyed little kids and hoped one day that they would get to see one outside of a book.
In 2016, we got our wish. My son ran into the house, his hands cupped together, and proclaimed that he had caught one. True to his word, not only had he caught a horny toad, he had caught a large adult, the likes of which I had not seen in years.
So, we treated it like an honored house guest, having explained to the kids that, no, we couldn’t keep it because it’s a threatened species. They took a few moments to pet it as I had done as a child and they agreed it was everything that I had told them it was.
After a brief visit, we let it go in the backyard and wished it luck. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen another horny toad since.