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The rare horned toad, once roaming in abundance on the West Texas landscape, is now scarcely seen.
Peter Arnold, Inc. / Alamy
To characterize the summers of my youth as misspent would, I believe, be a tad harsh. Still, my field of vision when 12-going-on-13 was limited to anticipation of the next Little League game and what Saturday afternoon shoot-’em-up would be shown at the downtown Texas Theatre. I could not have spelled ecology, much less defined it. The importance of maintaining a balance of nature and the concept of protecting the environment? I didn’t have a clue.

And, so, all these years later, a bit more aware, I come to apologize; to confess that I’m the guy who thoughtlessly aided in the disappearance of one of nature’s grand creatures from the landscape of my Southwest. Wonder why you don’t see the little prehistoric-looking Texas horned lizard anymore? I’m the guy to blame.

Time was when the arid West Texas terrain was the free-ranging home to the hand-size creature that scientists call Phrynosoma cornutum. Those of us of less academic bent referred to them as horned toads — or horny toads — because of the devilish horns on their foreheads and along their spines. They were as much a part of rural Texas as barbecue and country music. Over in Eastland, the legend was that the city fathers placed one in the time capsule cornerstone of a newly built courthouse back in 1897, and when it was opened 31 years later, the little guy, whom they quickly named Old Rip, was still alive. He was taken on a national tour, even stopping by to visit President Calvin Coolidge.

No wonder the fascinating little lizard was long ago designated the official state reptile. Even today, visitors to the community of Kenedy are greeted by a highway sign proclaiming it the “Horned Lizard Capital of Texas.” Texas Christian University, in Fort Worth, adopted the Horned Frog as its athletic mascot.
As late as the mid-1950s, all one needed to do was check out the nearest red ant bed to find horned toads lurking nearby, capturing the insects with their spear-like tongues. And there was a time when I knew the location of every feeding place within miles of my Runnels County home. That was the summer of my venture as an adolescent entrepreneur.

I had somehow obtained the mailing address of a Topeka, Kan., curio shop that was willing to pay 10 cents for each horned toad I could ship their way. It was my understanding that kids who frequented their store overwhelmingly preferred them over goldfish or baby turtles as bedroom pets.

Finances were a bit slim back in the mid-1950s, and it wasn’t always easy to scrape up the dime admission to the picture show. Thus I spent long summer days as a tireless hunter, daily visiting vacant lots and back alleys, chasing down horned toads, which I would then place in one of Mom’s washtubs. When I had collected enough to fill a shoebox (carefully punctured with air holes, mind you), I proudly marched to the post office, mailed them away and anxiously awaited the payment that would soon arrive.

My buddies, aware of the gold mine I’d hit upon, begged to know the address of my Kansas connection. While I kept it a carefully guarded secret, I did reach a free enterprise agreement whereby I began paying three cents for every horned toad they brought to me. Business boomed. That summer I had money to burn.
And, alas, the seemingly endless local horned toad population was greatly diminished. My bid for celestial wealth lasted but one fleeting summer since I somehow lost my benefactor’s address. Soon, others involved in horned toad trafficking would suffer the same fate. In 1967, the Texas Legislature passed a law forbidding shipment of the little reptiles out of state.

Now, a half century later, Oklahoma City documentary maker Stefanie Leland is finishing up work on her film Where Did the Horny Toad Go? According to her research, the decline of the species can be blamed on multiple culprits: urban development, the arrival of deadly fire ants (which killed off the larger red ants and numerous other Texas insects that were part of the horned toads’ diet) and the extensive use of pesticides. And, of course, what she refers to as the “pet trade,” in which I was a guilty participant.

“Actually,” says Leland, 30, “it is a bit of a mystery. There doesn’t seem to be any one single cause for their disappearance.” But there’s no question they’ve become a rarity. In Kenedy, which still proclaims itself the Horned Lizard Capital, sightings are few and far between.

Which saddens me. Today I can only offer this mea culpa for the part I played. If I had it to do over again, I’d let the majestic little creatures run free and instead seek my fortune redeeming discarded soda-pop bottles.