Cane Toads Invade Australia, Film Festival

Australian pests get a voice in 3-D documentary that awes audiences at Sundance.

February 5, 2010, 12:18 PM

Feb. 13, 2010— -- First, they were just Cane toads. Now, they're "Ava-toads" -- as Australian filmmaker Mark Lewis dubbed the untamable amphibians in a comparison between his latest 3-D documentary and the groundbreaking blockbuster film "Avatar."

The film, "Cane Toads: The Conquest," made great leaps during the last weeks of the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

"The film is about the greatest ecological or biological blunders of all time," said Lewis.

The blunders he's exploring happen to be the cane toads wreaking havoc in Australia. And the filmmaker has captured all their moves in the first 3-D documentary ever produced in the country.

But Lewis is not new at investigating the amphibians' antics. He did it 22 years ago in a quasi-prequel, "Cane Toads: An Unnatural History."

"The toad can't speak for itself," said Lewis. "So I really wanted to shoot this from the toads' point of view."

The warty creatures have been taking over Australia since 1935. It all started when well-meaning scientists brought 102 of the toads to the outback from Hawaii to control a pest that was destroying sugar cane fields. Problem is: the cane toads never did what they were supposed to do and they never left.

"The toads really found Australia the lucky country and they exploded all over," said Lewis. "They traveled. They have a great propensity to mate. They have a great propensity to breed."

Which is exactly what the toads have done. Australian government officials have tried everything to control them, but Lewis says the "greatest irony" is that no matter what anybody throws at the toads, nothing seems to stop them. Not fences, not trapping, not even electricity.

In some of the documentary's footage the menacing toad is seen hopping over an electrical fence with a loud jolt of electricity shocking the creature's skin. But it just keeps hopping on, completely unphased by its execution attempt.

"Nothing works," said Lewis.

And without predators or diseases to keep tabs on them, they got wild. So out of control, that Lewis says over time, the imported 102 toads exploded to over 1.5 billion. The female lays about 20,000-30,000 eggs at a time.

Since conquering the outback, the toads have left a trail of destruction, mainly the dead carcasses of native species such as small lizards, snakes and dogs. That's because the toads secrete a highly toxic poison through their glands, which kills the animals.

So the army of toads has kept marching on throughout Australia. Lewis estimates they've traveled about 1,000 miles across the top end of Australia -- that's like from New York City to Birmingham, Ala.

But Lewis says his film is not bad-mouthing the toad. Rather, the movie is a celebration of the warty creature he finds absolutely stunning and beautiful.

"Even one of the characters in the film says, 'I feel sorry for the poor little toad because it's ugly,' and another character says 'It's OK to kill the toad because it's ugly,' and I just find that sort of attitude abhorrent," said Lewis. "I don't understand why it's OK to suggest that we shouldn't be killing some species, but we should be killing the toad, purely because it's ugly."

Lewis even hired a toad whisperer for his cast of critters. The toad whisperer made sure the amphibians had fresh water and heating pads during the long and strenuous shoots. Lewis promised that no toads got harmed during production.

"I'm personally on the side of the toad," added Lewis. "It's not the toad's fault, the toad didn't ask to be brought to Australia. It's surviving, and it's surviving well."

Whether the movie will survive well with mainstream moviegoers is still up in the air, but it's worth mentioning the documentary scored high praise at the Sundance Film Festival. Above all -- toad controversy and all -- Lewis just wants people to sit back, relax, and enjoy the toad.

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