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How an endangered South African toad survived a journey via sneaker to Baltimore

An endangered-species toad traveled from South Africa to Baltimore in a Hopkins scientist’s sneaker and ended up in her gym locker.

Nancy Connell, a retired microbiologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, discovered the toad in the locker Friday morning after working out at the gym. She recognized him right away.

Connell had flown home from South Africa two days earlier and never unpacked her suitcase. On Friday morning, the Federal Hill resident pulled the sneakers from the suitcase, threw them in a gym bag and walked to the gym at the Inner Harbor.

The tiny toad that peered up at her from the bottom of the locker after her workout looked just like all the toads she had seen in George, in the Western Cape province, where she had been visiting a friend who runs a nursery on a farm. While there, toads kept jumping into her boots. She’d check her boots before she put them on.

“It never occurred to me to check my sneakers,” Connell said Saturday. “I packed up my sneakers and put them in my suitcase, next to a South African bottle of wine. And I checked the bag.”

When she opened the locker, “there was the toad,” which had fallen out of the gym bag, she said. “I quickly closed the locker and said, ‘Oh my God.’ I recognized it as the same type of toad that had been jumping in my shoes in South Africa. I just stared at him. I just couldn’t believe it, and I was sure that it had stowed away. There was no other place I could have picked up a toad.”

She had no time at first to be amazed that Riley, as she later named the toad, had survived multiple flights, train rides and shuttles, not to mention freezing temperatures at 37,000 feet. She later learned that the native South African species, the western leopard toad, is considered endangered though it is commonly found in some South African gardens.

On Friday, she snapped into action to save an amphibian she assumed was not only cold but dehydrated and starving. She scooped it into a coffee mug she found nearby and wrapped the mug for warmth under her coat for the few minutes’ walk to her Inner Harbor office. Then, after getting advice from colleagues to put the toad in a box with some water and hunting down crickets, she started working the phones. The toad, apparently comfortable, started to chirp.

A series of referrals led from the National Aquarium to the Maryland Natural Resources Police to the Department of Natural Resources wildlife division. She was advised to find a nature center or zoo that would care for and exhibit the toad. Several calls later, she found help at Baltimore County’s division of animal services in Jackson. On Friday afternoon, she and a friend went there to deliver the toad, which she had named after her cat. Riley the cat had died unexpectedly the day she left South Africa.

“We left the toad, and they were busy calling around to zoos,” Connell said. “I signed it over and promised it hadn’t been bitten or bitten anyone.”

The toad episode gave Connell something to focus on other than the sudden death of her cat. And it has given her a new appreciation for the hardiness and survival instincts of western leopard toads.

“I’m in awe of this toad and this species,” Connell said.

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