Sunday, July 14, 2013

Horny Toad Redux

Published in the Sun July 13, 2013

Ouida Henderson with a picture of her mother and the horny toad wagon

After writing about the decline in central Texas of “Horny Toads,” properly known as Texas Horned Lizards, I received the following letter from Nancy McMillan Higgs, who, as a child, lived around the corner from me in Austin.  Here is her story in her own words.

 

“Clearly you had moved away from Exposition Boulevard before you started learning about horny toads because I certainly would have taught you that they ate red ants.  I think, however, that I did not begin to learn about them till I was maybe 7, when we – Mom, Dad, and me – drove to Denver from Austin to visit one of my dad’s best friends.  We always started these trips in the wee hours of the night so we stopped in Lampasas for breakfast.  As we left the café, I spied a rather large horny toad by the car and Dad caught it for me.  I dutifully named him “Lampasas.”  He not only travelled all the way to Denver with us, but also to the top of Mount Evans, where I “hypnotized” him while sitting at the counter of the mountaintop café, sipping Alka Seltzer for my motion sickness.  I can still remember the mesmerized truckers sitting across from me and Mom…they had never seen a horny toad before!  During the trip, my mom was in the midst of making a Christmas stocking, so she made Lampasas a nice, sequined, elastic collar and leash that I used to tie him up next to ant beds for lunch while we ate.  Lampasas rode all the way home with me and was released in our backyard.  I’m not sure I ever saw him again, but at least a couple of weeks of his life were quite colorful.”

 

Nancy, who is quite the horny toad aficionado, continues with another story.  “I particularly loved the baby toads – maybe the size of a silver dollar.  One time I had one at home and was playing with it when my aunt was visiting.  I’d hypnotized it.  She didn’t see the before part, just the lie still on its back part.  She asked to hold it so I gave it to her.  She was admiring how it looked so real (duh) when I replied that it was indeed real.  And – you guessed it – she screamed and threw her hand up, the innocent little horny toad flying up into the air and striking the ceiling before coming down hard on the floor.  Dead on impact.  I was honestly appalled and disgusted at her ignorance and hysteria.  Luckily, she was my favorite aunt so eventually I got over it.”

 

Obviously, being a pet was quite hazardous duty for a horny toad, and in fact human attention is one of the major factors in their decline.  During the 1950s and 60s, many Texas children earned pocket money by catching live horny toads and mailing them to pet stores and curio shops in other states.  Nancy’s grandfather, a Jarrell farmer, paid her 25 cents each to catch horny toads, but he released them into his vegetable garden to eat insects, so likely Nancy’s lizards survived the transaction.

 

Ouida Henderson, an 85 year old Georgetown resident, related that ever since she was a child, her mother, Irene Moore Waddell (born 1899), had kept a small metal wagon, with attached horse, displayed in their home.  A bit of tan colored string, six or eight inches long, is tied around the horse’s neck and has remained tied there for all these many decades.  The loose end of the string was used by Irene and her little brother to harness a horny toad to the wagon, pulling both wagon and horse around the sandy streets of Hempstead, west of Houston.  Ouida is sure that it was their favorite toy, and she has kept the wagon displayed in her own home since her mother passed away.  I asked if Ouida herself used horny toad labor to pull the wagon, but she denies it.  “I wasn’t one to catch them.  I wasn’t a brave soul.”

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