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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Everett Townsend
on Horned Toads

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Wearing a lawman’s badge, Everett Townsend had killed men. As a pioneer conservationist, he was a prime mover in the creation of Big Bend National Park. But he was not incapable of having a little fun now and then.

A good example is the friendly feud he had with Alpine Avalanche editor Nig Bennett over an unusual self-defence ability attributed to Phrynsoma cornutum, far better known in Texas as horny toads. Townsend maintained that these critters spat blood out of their eyes when cornered. Bennett asserted that they did not.

While Townsend had years of experience on his side, having criss-crossed the Big Bend by horse and car, Bennet bought ink by the barrel. In other words, as a newspaper editor, he enjoyed a particularly bully pulpit. No matter, Bennett felt journalistically bound to be fair in his reporting.

Accordingly, in the September 8, 1939 edition of his newspaper, he devoted his page-one column, “Mountain Peeks: Glimpses from the Texas Rockies,” to an affidavit supposedly sworn and subscribed to by two women of near impeccable veracity: two nuns.

First Bennet set the stage:

“It seems that Everett Townsend is the only one who is still hot and bothered about the claim that horned toads spit blood. He is still working dilligently to prove, to himself probably, that they really do.”

With assistance from his friend Jerry Ratliff of the Sul Ross College faculty, Bennett continued, Everett had “secured from a couple of unsupecting souls” a statement that they had actually seen a horned toad “commit the act.”

Bennett also did a little crawfishing. “We have never said the horned toad does NOT spit blood when excited or angry” merely that “we have never seen one do it.”

The signed statement came from Sister Frances (christened Sue Mildred Johnson) and Sister Eloysius (christened Madeline Maria Wagner). Both women had attended summer school at Sul Ross.

“On or about June 17, A.D. 1939, we were out walking with dual purpose of exercising ourselves and giving Shoe Buttons (their dog) her daily constitutional,” the meat of their statement began.

Suddenly, “Shoe Button…attracted our attention by barking and scampering violently.” Turning to see what the matter was, the sisters found their dog “making heroic charges upon some tiny beestie. When we approached we discovered that the battle raging was between Shoe Buttons, as aggressor, and his horned toadship, on the defensive.”

The dog, they continued, “would alternately charge and retreat, and his toadship…would alternately do the reverse and ditto.”

Then Shoe Buttons, “…in a burst of fury—more valorous than wise—rushed the toad, but suddenly fell back in the face of a counter charge, and began to give tongue to her griefs, real and imagined.”

Rushing to the dog’s assistance, to their horror the sisters found its face covered with blood. At first they thought the dog had mortally injured the toad, but on closer examination, they realized the fluid had come from the toad. Spitting and running, the small reptile had succeeded in making its escape.

“Maybe the two good sisters were mistaken,” Bennett said of their statement. “Maybe the toad in question had a chew of terbaccy in his cheek and was squirting the juice therefrom.”

Despite the sworn testimony of the two nuns, and the belief of syndicated newspaper cartoonist Bob Ripley’s popular “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” feature, Everett Townsend and Jerry Ratliff, Bennet wrote that he still wasn’t convinced.

“We demand a demonstration,” he concluded.

That would have been easier back then than in the 21st century, when the iconic lizzard has become a rare sight in Texas. Thanks to human predation (from boys shooting them with BB rifles to people collecting them as pets or to gold-plate as jewelry) coupled with the invasive fireants’ consumption of the native ants that horned toads like to eat, they are a threatened species in Texas. Seeing one in the Big Bend or most other areas they used to range has gone from common to rare.

So who was right, an old lawman-rancher who had spent many a day in wild country in the heyday of the horned toad, or a country newspaper editor?

Improbable as it may seem, the ability to squirt blood collected from the capillaries along its eyelids, is indeed a built-in horned toad feature. When threatened, the palm-sized critters can send a stream for up to four feet.

The two nuns (or whoever reduced their statement to writing) may have been guilty of over-dramatizing the confrontation between their pet and a much-smaller lizard, but they had no confession to make in regard to prevarication.


©
Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
June 23, 2011 column

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