Saint Barrack sins by tucking into frog flesh
I’m driving through rural Uruguay in a beat-up car with two virtual strangers looking for a frog farm, which may or may not exist. It doesn’t get more random than this. I’ve left a gorgeous sunny day on a beautiful beach behind me, and voluntarily travelled 4 hours by bus back to stinking hot Montevideo to meet up with a couple of herpetologists so that we can spend the afternoon visiting what can best be described as a concentration camp for frogs. I think this is the moment where my amphibian obsession has truly taken control of my senses.
Grenouilles-in-waiting, minus garlic.
Frog farming is big business here in South America with millions of live frogs exported every year to feed a growing global market. The French are obviously a major customer, and since they have literally eaten all their native frogs, they rely on imports to satisfy their desire to graze upon tiny garlicky thighs. But they’re not alone in their taste for frog flesh - the US, South America and China are also major fans. And the Japanese like to wrap their lips around frog sashimi, as this rather disturbing video shows.
(One can only dream of a parallel universe where frogs rule the earth and a bunch of Japanese business frogs are served the odious presenter of this show’s bald head on ice as a lunch-time appetiser)
Although Brazil leads the way in industrial frog farming, 15 years ago small farms started to pop up here in Uruguay, a country with a long and illustrious history in the meat processing game. For 120 years their economy flourished on the production of anonymous canned meat products and the border town of Fray Bentos became the corned beef capital of the world.
The town of Fray Bentos is very proud of its place in pie history and is now home to what must be the world’s only processed meat museum (now there’s a fun afternoon for all the family – watch out Disney). Hopping on the frog farm bandwagon must have been a natural step for a country with a knack for producing alien foodstuffs and harbouring Nazi war criminals.
I’m keen to see one of these frog farms with my own eyes. So I’ve arranged to meet two local herpetologists I found online in the hope that they can take me. It’s not the kind of request you get every day – a foreign woman writing to you and asking to be taken to a frog farm but Claudio and Francisco, whilst visibly nervous are also very obliging.
The only trouble is most of the farms didn’t survive the 2002 financial crash. There is only one left and we don’t know exactly where it is or who owns it. But Uruguay is a small place and after asking around we eventually find ourselves at Washington, the caretaker’s house. He thinks there’s nothing strange about our desire to see his work-place and jumps on his bicycle and takes us on a guided tour of the farm.
My main reason for wanting to see one of these farms is that they are known to be a major factor in the global spread of Chytrid, the deadly fungus that is contributing to the amphibian extinction crisis. The problem is that American bullfrogs (the frog of choice for frog farming) can carry the fungus without succumbing to its fatal grasp. Studies have revealed that most of the South American farms test positive for Chytrid. The farmed frogs then carry the fungus with them to any market or town they’re exported to, thereby spreading the fungus both nationally and internationally.
As soon as I walk in the door I realise that this is one of those be-careful-what-you-wish-for moments. The first thing that hits you is the fetid stench. Then the constant drip-drip of water. There are dead animals everywhere. Floating listlessly in the water amongst the live tadpoles and frogs.
Altogether it’s an utterly depressing place - dank and
smelling of death. It would be an uncomfortable experience for anyone let along
three frog-lovers. I feel guilty for dragging Claudio and Francisco into this
gruesome situation. It’s doubly awkward as we’re essentially strangers. None of
us really knows how to react (particularly me) so we all smile benignly through
Altogether it’s an utterly depressing place - dank and smelling of death. It would be an uncomfortable experience for anyone let along three frog-lovers. I feel guilty for dragging Claudio and Francisco into this gruesome situation. It’s doubly awkward as we’re essentially strangers. None of us really knows how to react (particularly me) so we all smile benignly through the horror.
The farm is in two sections. There’s the main production area with big concrete tanks full of frogs in various stages of metamorphosis. Then there is the romance room where a select group of adults get down to production. It’s slightly more deluxe, compared to the barren concrete vats next door, but it’s not exactly what you’d call romantic.
The swingers room at the frog farm, take your partner by the hand and lead her to...a slimy white bucket
In the middle of the room there is a shallow concrete tank where the frogs hang out when they’re not copulating – a sort of getting-to-know-each-other jacuzzi area. The white troughs stationed around the edge are where the action happens. It seems the frogs like a bit of privacy and so each couple has the dignity of their own dirty white plastic bucket to do it in.
This farm has tested positive for Chytrid in the past and it’s a creepy sensation to know that these frogs are all infected. I ask Washington about escapees and he tells me not to worry - if he hears a bullfrog calling in the nearby woods, he chases after it and shoots it with his rifle. Wow, this place really is an amphibian Abu Graib. But even with the escapees killed I’m still very concerned about humans walking in and out of the farm spreading Chytrid on their boots wherever they go. Claudio and Francisco have already detected the fungus in selected wild frogs populations in Uruguay and you’ve got to wonder whether farms like this one could have been the original source.