Roxborough’s toad detour documentary premieres Saturday

The toads of Roxborough are ready for their close-up. On Saturday, the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education will host the public premiere of filmmaker Burgess Coffield’s “The Toad Detour”, an official documentary for the local organization of the same name. 

The film got its start last February when Coffield, a Pittsburgh native attending Temple’s film school and working in Roxborough, noticed a news article about an annual toad migration jeopardized by car traffic.

Toad Detour founder Lisa Levinson began her official mission to aid the toads three years ago, though she notes that some locals have been looking out for the toads on their own for a dozen years.

Bufo americanus, or the American Toad, has a special appeal for Levinson, who finds them “very cute”. She calls the Roxborough Reservoir, with its lack of natural predators and excellent survival rate for toad eggs, a “Mecca for the toads”. Every March and April, the toads flock across Port Royal Avenue and Eva Street into the reservoir, just like people mobbing “the coolest dance club”.

Most of the migrating toads were born in the reservoir themselves, and the spring migration is made of thousands on their mission to continue the species. In June, the pathway reverses, when thousands of tiny toadlets, no larger than a fingernail, cross the roads to reach their terrestrial home.

The mission

The problem comes when unwitting motorists crush hundreds or even thousands of the resolute amphibians. The Toad Detour is unique among similar groups in the U.S., because they have the cooperation of the city to temporarily barricade streets that border the reservoir. 

Levinson, along with about 200 local supporters (known as “toadies”) who turn out in small groups to help shepherd the toads on warm and rainy spring evenings, has personal reasons for her efforts. She was moved to found her organization because she hated seeing so many of the unsuspecting toads being killed. “I love all animals,” she says, and admires the toads’ singular determination to hatch the next generation. “It’s such a tragedy to see them squished in the moment of their greatest glory.”

Coffield also fell under the toads’ spell while making his film.

“It seemed crazy that people in Philly would shut down the road for these little toads,” he thought when the Toad Detour first caught his eye. But while working on his film, he “kind of fell in love with the toads.” In June, his wife joined him in helping to rescue the toadlets.

The critics and the challenges

While Levinson notes that most residents are supportive of her efforts, there are always a few who become angry at the barricades – including one driver who shouted that the one-block detour was forcing him to waste expensive gas.

Those frustrated with the attention to toads should know that the volunteers’ efforts are not merely sentimental – the toads are an important part of the local ecosystem, as a food source to many birds and animals, and they play a vital role in keeping the local mosquito population in check, which helps to reduce the risk of diseases like West Nile Virus.

“Auto casualties are a main factor in amphibian decline,” Levinson says – especially during the toadlets’ migration, when a single passing car can kill thousands. Without the Toad Detour’s efforts, this could have a major effect on the local ecosystem.

While Coffield enjoyed making his documentary, the toads’ nighttime habits – not to mention their preference for damp weather – made filming quite a challenge.

“We had to have handheld lights for everything,” he says. “We had to rig garbage bags over the camera because of the rain.” It was also difficult because no one can predict precisely when the toads will march.

Raising awareness

The finished 40-minute film features not just footage of the migration, but interviews with Schuylkill Center staff, local residents, and Toad Detour participants. Coffield hopes to enter it into several 2012 film festivals, including Philadelphia’s. The event at the Schuylkill Center begins at 4 p.m., and will include a question and answer session with the filmmaker. Levinson also promises a special announcement after the screening – a good-news item for the toads and volunteers alike.

Ultimately, Levinson hopes that the film will not only raise awareness for the Toad Detour efforts and swell the ranks of volunteers, but also encourage a better human commitment to “stick up for animals”, and empathize with other living beings’ missions and journeys.

Coffield admires the way Roxborough residents go out of their way to help the local toad population. “I hope people will watch the film, and then look around in their own lives for the small things,” Coffield adds. “It’s never a waste to pay attention to the small things.”

The screening starts at 4 p.m. at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Roxborough. 

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