Food for thought: What does it take to get frog legs on your plate in California? If you’re in San Francisco, hop on the trolly and head down to Chinatown. I had heard it was easy to find a live American Bullfrog for sale at any meat market in Chinatown, but I had actually never seen them for myself. So it was decided that now was the perfect time to make the trip to Chinatown. The effort was suggested by Eric Mills, coordinator for the Bay Area based organization Action For Animals and Miles Young, a retired California Department of Fish and Wildlife Game Warden. For nearly two decades these dedicated individuals have worked to ban the import of non-native frogs and turtles into California and they are the authority on the problems associated with the trade of amphibians and turtles in San Francisco. Armed with my camera, the three of us set off to find frogs for sale. Before I get into the meat of this post (no pun intended), here’s a summary of what we observed: Not only did we find and photograph hundreds of diseased and mangled American Bullfrogs, but we saw countless animal body parts available for sale, watched Florida Softshell Turtles get dismembered alive, and witnessed many other animals wait, in cages so small, for their time on the chopping block. Viewer discretion is advised.
Why would a person purposely go out of their way to witness such animal abuse? It’s a simple answer: Because it needs to stop. The trade of the American Bullfrog is not only inhumane and cruel, but it contributes to the extinction of native species in California. Therefore it is important we document how these animals are coming into the country and how they are treated from the pond to the plate. The first frog we found was this smiling individual and it made me reflect on how we think about frogs. In cultures around the world amphibians are celebrated and are symbols of rain, birth, life, good fortune, etc. What we found was quite the opposite.
We made our way through the busy streets of San Francisco in search of frogs.
It is important to know the history of the American Bullfrog in California. Bullfrogs were originally introduced to the western United States in the late 1800’s to provide an additional source of frog legs after the California gold miners ate the California Red-Legged Frogs (Rana draytonii) to near extinction. Bullfrogs have many traits that allow them to be perfect invaders outside their native range: female bullfrogs can lay more than 40,000 eggs, and they can occupy a wide variety of habitats, including man-made and natural wetlands, streams, lakes, ponds and temporary pools. Their robust nature and large size has contributed to their success as an invasive species and thus the frogs have spread all over the state.
However, it is not just in California that Bullfrogs have become established. These frogs are considered an invasive species in Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, Colorado, China, Colombia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, France, Haiti, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, South Korea, Taiwan, Venezuela and Uruguay. Due to the ease with which they can be farmed, bullfrogs and bullfrog farms have proliferated around the world in recent years. Combined with America’s growing appetite for frog legs, and the increasing use of bullfrogs in the pet and dissection trades, the importation of bullfrogs into California has been on the rise.
How do these frogs get to the markets? American Bullfrogs are the frog species most commonly farmed worldwide. These frogs are farmed in countries like China, Taiwan, and Brazil and are kept in crowded, unsanitary conditions. Hundreds of frogs are stuffed into green, mesh bags and are then shipped around the world to satisfy the demand for frog meat.
A closer look reveals how the frogs are stacked on top of each other.
We mostly stayed around Stockton Street and it was packed with tourists and people buying food at the markets. I photographed this worker as he peered into a tub full of American Bullfrogs and I pondered his thoughts. Then I began to wonder about the tourists and what they thought about these frogs for sale. Did any of them consider the bigger picture behind the trade of amphibians? Did anyone care that these frogs were being kept in such conditions? It is hard to say what their thoughts were, but I observed no protest of the frog’s captivity and business continued as usual.
So, what’s the problem with eating frogs? Besides being an unnecessary part of any individual’s diet, the trade of amphibians around the world is causing big problems for native wildlife because these frogs get out into the ecosystem. Upon arrival in the state, some bullfrogs inevitably escape their holding facilities; others are purposely set free by well-intentioned owners. A more insidious problem is the release into the environment of water from the tanks in which the bullfrogs were held — and the diseases contained therein. Even in the most developed countries, there are virtually no protocols in place to ensure that diseased amphibians do not get imported or exported. They are known carriers of the amphibian chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) and thus are likely to be primary contributors to the global spread of chytridiomycosis, a disease that has decimated amphibian populations worldwide. In a recent study, 62% of the captive-raised bullfrogs sampled in shops in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco were infected with the chytrid fungus. These three cities alone have been importing over five million amphibians per year.
They are also quite adept at establishing populations in areas to which they have been introduced, and they have become invasive species in at least 15 countries worldwide. Bullfrogs compete with and eat native amphibians. Actually, bullfrogs eat all types of native wildlife: frogs, bats, ducklings, snakes and more. Bullfrogs are listed on the IUCN’s list of 100 worst invasive species.
That’s the problem: American Bullfrogs are spreading disease and are driving native species to extinction. As I continued walking through the markets it was clear that this trade of frogs wants to go on unnoticed. Many shop windows displayed “no camera” signs and as a result I kept my photography low-key.
In most stores you can see this sign hanging in a window. It informs the consumer that the act of releasing these frogs and turtles is against the law. Behind me to the left are tubs with dozens of American Bullfrogs for sale.
It is well understood by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife that the sale of the American Bullfrogs and non-native turtles for food has spread disease and invasive species. However, it’s big business and they allow the import of these animals into the state. One way they address the issue is to have many stores place this sign in their front window or where the animals are being sold. All stores are required to kill the animals before they leave the store to ensure they do not get out into the native ecosystem. The animals are supposed to be killed away from public view but this does not always happen.
As we surveyed the shops, we found where the frogs were kept. Usually the frogs were near the door so people could easily see and choose which one they wanted to buy. Most tubs contained between 20 to 40 frogs, but at some stores hundreds of frogs were crammed into tubs.
How bad are the conditions? Frogs are piled on top of each other in large tubs and they sit in water and excrement as they wait to be purchased. All of the Bullfrogs are adults and many were quite large individuals. Bigger frogs are desired as they provide more meat.
At most seafood and meat shops in Chinatown you can purchase frogs and they ranged from $3 to $4 dollars a pound. Many of these frogs can be seen with open sores and wounds which are caused by the stress of travel and inaccurate blows to the head which are intended to end the frog’s life.
If a customer wants to buy a frog, the store clerk would grab the frog, stab its head with a sharp object or smash its skull with a blunt object. Some frogs undergo this treatment and are not purchased. Many still survive the trauma, but do not live long after the initial event.
Turtles are also on the menu in Chinatown and many were seen offered for sale. On this day we observed three species for sale, Red-eared Sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans), Spiny Softshell (Apalone spinifera), and Florida Softshell (Apalone ferox).
Like the frogs, these turtles are also considered an invasive species in the state of California and are vectors for the deadly Chytrid fungus because they are kept in such close proximity to the frogs. These turtles are shipped around the world in crowded, cramped conditions. These Red-eared Sliders were found for sale at a pet store in Chinatown.
At the meat market they are transported in mesh bags and are left on the floor until they are ready to fill an empty tub.
We saw a customer purchase a Florida Softshell and we watched it be dismembered alive.
This Spiny Softshell is now ready to be taken home for dinner and this is the end result if you are to purchase turtle meat in Chinatown, San Francisco. Like frogs, the over-harvesting of turtles has rapidly reduced turtle populations around the globe and many species are on the brink of extinction.
For the most part, this slaughter is legal and it continues every day. If a store is found breaking the law (selling animals alive, butchering animals in pubic view, etc) the individual caught is given a warning by a Game Warden and if that same person is caught again they are given the option to pay a minimal $200 fine or request that the arresting agency give him/her a class on California Department of Fish and Wildlife laws. With around 200 Game Wardens in the state of California it does not seem likely that a repeat offense will be caught and penalized. Enforcement of these laws is a difficult thing to do in Chinatown.
Here’s how you can help: The eradication of bullfrogs from critical amphibian habitat is an integral part of the management plans for many threatened amphibian species in the western USA. However, efforts to eradicate bullfrogs will be futile in the long-term so long as bullfrogs are still being imported into the states to which they do not belong, as the frogs inevitably escape into the wild or are intentionally set free. Thus the continued importation of American Bullfrogs into California runs contrary to state and federal Endangered Species Acts and is in the worst interest of western states’ ecosystems and native wildlife.
–Visit the SAVE THE FROGS! website and learn about the problem with eating frog legs and how these invasive species upset the balance of native ecosystems.
NEVER EAT FROG MEAT AND DO NOT BUY WILD-CAUGHT FROGS
–The trade of the American Bullfrog is what causes the spread of disease and invasive species. Do not support the trade of amphibians.
SIGN THE PETITION
–SAVE THE FROGS! supports a ban on the importation, sale, release and possession of American Bullfrogs into and within areas to which they do not belong, i.e. anywhere outside eastern North America. SAVE THE FROGS! requests that teachers and pet seekers not purchase American Bullfrogs or their tadpoles, as either you or the biological supplier has a high chance of being located outside the frogs’ native range.
Sign the petition to ban the import of American Bullfrogs into the state of California: www.savethefrogs.com/bullfrog-petition
Your signature will help convey the importance of this matter to California’s politicians, who to date have been slow to adopt measures to protect California’s native amphibian populations, many of which are endangered. Sign this petition and share it with your friends, family and family. We need your help to stop the inhumane and cruel trade of amphibians that is wiping out native species in California. This is a winnable campaign and together we can save the frogs!