Poison-Dart Frogs Find a Home in the Desert

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A couple outside Phoenix, Ariz., run a thriving poison-dart frog business in their home. The creatures, which normally live in the rain forest, have become the latest fad in exotic pets.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

There's a new trend in the pet world that has nothing to do with cockapoodles, ferrets or Siamese fighting fish. More and more people around the world are getting their very own poison-dart frogs. And one of the biggest breeders in the United States is just outside Phoenix, a place pretty inhospitable to the rainforest-loving amphibians.

Thomas Pierce has more.

THOMAS PIERCE: Both cars parked in Greg and Amanda Sihler's driveway have shiny Arizona license plates, each with slight variations spell out dart frog. The license plates and…

(Soundbite of croaking frog)

PIERCE: …the rubber toy on their front porch are the only clues that this unremarkable two-storey home in the suburbs is anything but ordinary.

Stepping into the Sihler's living room feels like you are entering the amphibian exhibit at the zoo. The Sihlers breed, raise and sell poison-dart frogs, hundreds of them. Where most people have chair, pots, pans and maybe a coat rack, they have terrariums full of frogs.

The animals look like tiny creatures from a "Star Wars" film that is computerized and not very real, and they come in all colors and patterns - blue, green, red, yellow, striped and spotted.

Greg Sihler is a bit more subdued in his outfit - an untuck pan(ph) polo shirt and a long ponytail bouncing down his back. He moves from tank to tank like a kid at show and tell.

Mr. GREG SIHLER: (Poison-Dart Frog Breeder, Phoenix, Arizona): These guys are interesting. Phyllobates terribilis is the true dart frog. It's the most - considered the most toxic land creature.

PIERCE: The frogs get their name from that toxin. It covers their skin. Some tribes in South America use the poison to hunt. A dark tip in the frog's toxin can paralyze animals almost instantly. Lucky for us, only three out of the hundreds of dart frog species can take down a human, and even luckier, in captivity, the frogs aren't really toxic at all. Without the right tropical diet, they don't produce the alkaloids that make their skin so dangerous.

Mr. SIHLER: You could pick one of this up, and unless you have an open wound or something on your skin, the toxin is not going to immediately affect you. So again, you really would have to mess with one or stick it in your mouth. It's wouldn't really harm you.

PIERCE: Greg admits he is no scientist. He wincingly calls himself a hobbyist. By day, he's a computer consultant that loves coming home to work on the elaborate tanks he's designed to look like slices of the rainforest, some are even sprouting orchids. The frogs are showered with mist to keep them nice and humid in this land of scorching sand.

Mr. SIHLER: If they get out in Arizona, they turn into what we call frog jerky within half an hour to an hour.

PIERCE: The Sihlers have always been exotic animal aficionados. They once dabbled with big(ph) geckos and red-eye tree frogs, but in the mid-90s their interest was darted by the Amazonian variety. The birth of their twin girls forced them to take a break but it wasn't long before they were back at frog breeding.

Mr. SIHLER: Of course, our family is, like, oh, God, he's getting more frogs, and I was, like, it's just going to be a few tanks this time. It's not going to be a business. Well, with some people, you can't just have a few frogs.

PIERCE: Today, the Sihlers are one of the biggest dart frog breeders in the nation. They attend frog shows all over the country. Framed frog photos compete with family portraits on the walls. They've converted their garage into a high-tech frog room full of gear and a thermostat that sends temperature reports to their cell phones. And they have created an online store, The Arizona Dendrobate Ranch. Dendrobate comes from the frog's scientific Latin name. Dart frogs can sell for as little as $35 but some varieties that are more difficult to breed can go for a thousand. So there's an incentive to get the whole family involved, including their daughters.

Ms. AMANDA SIHLER (Poison-Dart Frog Breeder, Phoenix, Arizona): They're getting to the age where they're starting to get more involved and be our little helpers in certain things that we do, so…

Mr. SIHLER: Our daughters really, really likes…

Ms. SIHLER: Animals.

Mr. SIHLER: Animals, insects, bugs and so she says she wants to be a vet. And we have our fingers crossed.

PIERCE: Of course, the girls are still in elementary school, but Greg and Amanda Sihler are hoping that their frog fanaticism is blooming in another generation.

For NPR News, I'm Thomas Pierce in Phoenix.

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