Friday, August 24, 2012

Frogs in a Box?

Novelty item for kids feature live animals

Just when you think you’ve heard it all, along comes something else that boggles the mind. “EcoAquariums”, sometimes called “Frog-O-Spheres” are the current live animal fad in kid’s toy stores and gift shops throughout Canada and the US. They’re miniscule plastic cubes that measure 6 inches (15 cm) by 4 inches (10 cm) and contain two dwarf African clawed frogs, a bamboo stalk, gravel, “living gravel”, and a rock. They are mainly produced and distributed in the United States and marketed as self-contained ecosystems, perfect as low-maintenance, educational pets for young children.

At first glance these tiny “frogs in a box” might seem like the perfect solution for a puppy-begging child, but on closer inspection it becomes quite obvious that these small plastic cubes are ill-conceived, inhumane and if that’s not enough, they can pose a human health risk as well.

It should be obvious to most people that the size of the cube is far too small to maintain two dwarf African clawed frogs in a way that allows them to behave normally (meaning that they can do at least some of what they would do in a more natural and/or expansive setting) and remain in good health. Frog care literature generally recommends that each frog of this species be given at least one (preferably two) gallons of water each, that’s 277 – 554 cubic inches, instead of the 24 cubic inches the cube provides.

The potential problems become more obvious if you examine the natural lifestyle of these frogs. In the wild, they are a prey species that seek dimly lit areas to conceal themselves or hide under or around natural objects to evade perceived threats. In a tiny plastic cube, they may be unable to properly retreat and therefore endure repeated ” frights” resulting in chronic stress which can lead to illness and suffering.

Dwarf African clawed frogs are an ectothermic species, which means they are unable to regulate their own body temperature, so in captivity they require an external heat source (i.e., heater) and a thermometer should be used to monitor and maintain their preferred temperature range of 78° to 82°F (25° to 28°C). The frogs in a box have no opportunity to engage in normal thermoregulatory behaviours so they are at the mercy of their custodians.

The average household ambient temperature, which can fluctuate greatly by season (I know mine does), is not usually high enough for the frogs, and if the cube is located on a heater or a windowsill, the frog’s fate could be overheating or freezing to death. The care instructions that accompany the frogs suggest wrapping a blanket around the cube but this will do little to address the thermal needs of the frogs.

The producers claim the frogs only need to be fed two pellets twice a week, and that 75% of the water needs to be changed every 3 to 4 months due to the filtration abilities of the “living gravel” provided. In reality, shed skin, uneaten food, and feces can overwhelm the capacity of the biofiltration processes of the living gravel in the cube. Instead of the infrequent and drastic changes of water, which can shock the frogs, 10-20% of the water should be replaced periodically, possibly weekly.

Just like us, dwarf African clawed frogs do better on a diet that is high in variety and available regularly. Because these frogs’ dietary needs can fluctuate, it is generally recommended that the frog’s pellet diet be supplemented with random feedings of a variety of foodstuffs such as frozen mosquito larvae, and live food items like water fleas.

Even if we accept the claims that the frogs can be kept alive if the care instructions are followed, is living in a plastic cube really something any animal should be subjected to?

In 2009, after numerous complaints about the frogs, animal protection organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals conducted an undercover investigation of Wild Creations, the company that produces Ecoaquariums. The video footage they obtained shows hundreds of overcrowded frogs stored in stagnant unfiltered tubs of water for days on end, without any food. Staff members were filmed roughly handling and improperly packaging the frogs, as well as mistaking ill frogs for dead ones, throwing them in the garbage. It was later discovered (due to customer complaints over missing limbs) that the frogs were resorting to cannibalism in an attempt to survive these conditions VIDEO FOOTAGE.

In addition to the threats these mini-tanks can pose to the frogs they confine, they can also pose a risk to human health, and to the health of our natural, native ecosystems. Dwarf African clawed frogs are known to carry potentially pathogenic organisms (a normal part of the internal flora and fauna of many reptiles and amphibians) which have been connected to declining rates of wild amphibians in many parts of the world. Release of these frogs into the wild, or improper disposal of a dead frog, can lead to disastrous consequences to local ecosystems and wild amphibian populations. Stagnant water filled with urine, feces, shed skin, and uneaten food also provides favourable conditions for bacterial growth, including Salmonella.

As of July 18, 2011, the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) has been investigating an ongoing nationwide outbreak of Salmonella linked to the dwarf African clawed frog and the water from their tanks. A total of 241 individuals have been infected across 42 states since 2009, with 69% of the victims being younger than 10 years old. In an attempt to reduce the zoonotic threat of these frogs, the town of Markham, Ontario recently made an amendment to their Animal Control By-Law, in which they added the dwarf African clawed frog to their list of prohibited animals for both retailers and consumers.

The frog cubes are not an appropriate item for toy and gift stores. Keeping captive aquatic amphibians requires specialized care and their acquisition should not be an impulse decision – dwarf African clawed frogs are not toys, decorations, or novelty items - they are living animals that deserve the forethought, research, and responsibility that is required when deciding to become a pet owner. It doesn’t matter how small an animal is or how cheap they may be to purchase, their full range of needs should be considered.

My intuition is that these frog cubes teach many kids that some animals are disposible, and they can be mistreated, controlled, and exploited for profit. Despite the threats they face in nature, many frog species are still relatively abundant in North America, even in urban ponds, rivers and wetlands. If we’re interested in educating children about ecosystems or amphibians, we can take them outside to explore a real ecosystem as it was meant to be… in the wild, not in a bedroom or on a desk or windowsill.

The frog cubes are a popular seller for the moment, but they’ve also sparked outrage. Petitions and boycotts have appeared across the internet, and as a result many retailers have already pulled the product from their stores, including Brookstone, Magic Beans, Target, Toys R Us, Rite Aid, JC Penney, Albertsons, and Mastermind Toys. Unfortunately they are still widely available through a variety of locations and dealers including,,, Green Earth Stores Ltd, Learning Express, Rolo Store, Pick of the Crop, and Scholar’s Choice.

If you think it’s inappropriate for two small frogs to live out their lives in 24 sq inch plastic cube, then please send the various retailers in Ontario (listed below) a polite email and let them know what you think. Copy your email to

Scholar’s Choice
London, Ontario (Head office of chain)

Green Earth Stores Ltd
London, Ontario (Head office of chain)

Pick of the Crop
Oakville and Milton, ON

Rolo Store
Toronto, ON

Minds Alive
Collingwood and Midland, Ontario

Peek-A-Boo Kids Sales Ltd
Toronto, Ontario

Mind Games

Turtle Pond Toys
Dundas, Niagra Falls, Waterloo, and St. Catherines, Ontario

Michelle Harrison
Zoocheck Inc.

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