Free Willie: The reluctant “pet”; photo by Gosia Nuwer

First published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, June 20, 2023

My wife, Gosia, and I were petless until a mid-size toad came into our lives not long before we moved to Alaska.

He excavated a home in the second step of our stoop. A chunk of concrete fell out and created an inviting hole.

The toad liked sunbathing on the steps. I had to be on guard so that my size 14 boots didn’t turn the toad into a skidmark.

To save his warty hide, I convinced my wife we should adopt the toad as an indoor pet. We bought a tank, overhead light, screen cover, day bulbs, night bulbs, food and water dishes, special bedding. Gosia scooped out pebbles from his hole in the crack so he could enjoy a little of his old environment.

We gave the toad a name. One way to tell a toad’s sex is to hold it firmly behind the head. A male toad will make a noise of protest because he’s fooled into thinking another male wants to have his way with him. The female will stay quiet.

I reached into the tank and squeezed the toad’s neck. Croak! Our toad was a male. We called him Willie.

That evening Willie stayed hidden behind a rock.

The next day he was out in full view and even bathed in his water dish.

We bought about $10 worth of crickets and meal worms.

Willie scarfed down a half-dozen critters in no time flat. We tried to follow his tongue each time, but Willie was too fast. One millisecond there was a cricket. Another millisecond and Willie’s throat bulged with pleasure.

For three nights we listened to Willie’s deep-voiced croaks. Always his neck would swell and then he’d announce his presence.

Then I made a big, irretrievable mistake.

I went on the Internet and found a site with male toads making mating cries to stake out their territory.

Willie at first answered with a deep croak. But then his behavior changed. Willie began jumping for the screen. Clearly, he wanted to escape. Worse, he ignored the fresh crickets and wax worms we dropped beside him.

Gosia minced no words. She told me that Willie grew frightened of the unseen toads with booming male potency.

Keeping him was impossible. He’d starve in no time.

Putting him back in the crack was no good either. One day he’d end up squished under a boot.

So we sealed the crack and found another nice hole on the side of the stoop. We netted him, took him outside, and put him in the new hole.

I dropped a fat meal worm into the hole. Sure enough, that long tongue appeared and the worm became a snack treat.

So that’s the end of the story. Willie never made the trip to Alaska. Probably he’d never even be allowed into Canada.

I’m now writing a children’s story called “The Toad in the Stoop.” Maybe I’ll sell it and get back the $100 I spent on Willie’s short-lived adoption.

Hank Nuwer is managing editor of the News-Miner. Contact him at