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Tiny toads overload East Pasco

First there was drought. Then the invasion of crop-eating grasshoppers.

Now it's toads, hopping and croaking in biblical proportions in the Dade City area.

Okay, biblical is perhaps too strong. The coming of the toads certainly will not affect the region as did the constant lack of rain or the colossal grasshopper infestation two years back.

But try telling that to Bill Webb and his wife, Dempsey. The retired couple awoke Sunday morning to find hundreds of thousands of toads crawling ashore from the shallow pond behind their home.

That's a conservative estimate. There could easily be millions of toads throughout the Webbs' neighborhood off St. Joe Road, west of Dade City.

Granted, they're not big toads. They're baby toads, most about a third-inch long, and they're terribly vulnerable. On Tuesday, the Webbs' property was covered with baby toad carcasses.

A wooden walkway, about 150 feet long, leads from the back porch of the Webbs' home to a boat dock. There used to be a lake there, but like numerous other Pasco lakes, it dried up from years of below-average rainfall and aggressive well pumping. Like many other Pasco boat docks, it is a dock that leads nowhere.

The walkway, however, seems to have acted as a railroad for the baby toads. They traveled the 150 feet under the walkway, presumably to stay out of the sun, until they reached the steps to the Webbs' back porch. If you look between the wooden slats, you can see what Bill Webb described as a "human pyramid" of sorts.

Actually, it's a toad pyramid. It's thousands of toads, climbing on top of each other, trying to get out. Like toad zombies, arising from the dead.

"We've been here six years, and this is the first time this has happened," Webb said. "They got that far, and they got stymied there, so they built that human pyramid to get out. I thought that was very smart."

Mrs. Webb points out that her husband felt sorry for the baby toads, so he built little "bridges" _ sticks he placed between the slats _ for them to escape.

The bridges work, too. During 10 minutes of observation Tuesday, nearly 100 baby toads poured out from under the stairs.

Unfortunately, some of the toads didn't get much farther. They are easily crushed underfoot. Or undercar, for that matter.

Sunday morning, Mrs. Webb said, the driveway was covered with hundreds of toads. "It was just solid with them," she said. "They just came around the corner from the back and filled it up."

"I've never seen anything like it," Webb said. "If you had any feeling for them at all, you just wouldn't go out the back door. You'd just crush four or five walking out. You can't help it."

This points out the fundamental philosophical difference between the Webbs.

Webb bows his head as he walks, stepping carefully to avoid crushing even a single toad. Mrs. Webb, however, has resigned herself to the fact that her every step will cause widespread toad carnage.

"I just try not to think about it anymore," she said, taking out a small family of toads as she walked. "There's nothing you can do."

"I just couldn't put my foot down on them and squash them," Webb said. "And that's what we've been doing."

In fact, that will matter little. Very few of the toads probably will live to be their full adult size of 4 to 5 inches long, said F. Wayne King, curator of reptiles and amphibians at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.

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