Cane Toads: An Unnatural History (1988)
Cane Toads: An Unnatural History (1988)

Genre: Documentary Running Time: 1 hr. 5 min.

Release Date: September 30th, 1988 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Mark Lewis Actors: Tip Byrne, H.W. Bill Kerr, Glen Ingram, Bill Freeland




n the 1930s, sugar was one of Australia’s major exports. But North Queensland’s farmers had a problem that threatened their crops: the cane grub. In 1932, a world conference of sugar technologies in Puerto Rico decided that a toad from Hawaii could be the solution; by 1935, an entomologist collected up a colony of cane toads and transported them to Australia. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. They reproduced rapidly, went everywhere, and ate everything except the cane beetle and grubs. The lifestyles of the two species didn’t synchronize, so the toads were never out and about when the grubs were. One female amphibian could produce up to 40,000 eggs in a summer – the quantity being necessary just so two can survive to replace the parents. But more than two definitely survived. The toads spread quickly and kept moving across the northern territories and down into the southlands as well.

The film defines a few terms for viewers, along with having scientists and doctors do some demonstrations on frog mating calls and amplexus (the act of fertilizing), as well as showing their life cycle from eggs to tadpoles to adults. It also touches upon the poisonous nature of the toad’s toxic compounds that can shoot from glands located near their shoulders – which have killed dogs and cats and can pose a threat to small children. Furthermore, a rather alarming dramatization shows a baby playing with a specimen, cutting away only just before it ends up in the toddler’s mouth. A subsequent interview involves a drug abuser who smokes the poison and utters nonsense in the dark. Many other locals are similarly filmed describing their experiences with the miniature monsters.

The pesticide Gammexane eventually proved effective against the grubs – but the toad problem became even more troublesome than the original pest. Some people adapted nicely by turning the critters into something along the lines of stray cats, feeding them and playing with them. Some just like watching them crawl across the lawns and mate, listening to their froggy cooing. And others were disgusted by the erection of a cane toad statue for the sake of tourists, which was later removed. By the 1960s, the predicament still hadn’t been solved, and the amphibian presence started to attract a lot more attention. By the end of the documentary, shot around 1988, the toads were still everywhere and no solution had been found.

It begins like a monster movie, with foreboding music that continues throughout most of the documentary, insisting that the toads are something to be feared rather than embraced. “Cane Toads: An Unnatural History” features bizarrely comical music (with “cane toad” frequently showing up in the lyrics), an extremely close close-up on a biologist, a necrophiliac toad, some disturbing toad-killing techniques (definitely not approved by the Humane Society), and quite a bit of interesting, historical information on the creatures. And all of it is unintentionally humorous. Though the project is informative, it doesn’t feel complete, especially considering no happy ending exists – everyone just has to deal with the fat little things hopping all over the place, leisurely reproducing, and continually feasting.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10