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Thousands Of Toxic Toads Killed At Australian Celebration

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SYDNEY — Thousands of poisonous cane toads met their fate Sunday as gleeful Australians gathered for a celebratory mass killing of the hated amphibians, with many of the creatures' corpses being turned into fertilizer for the very farmers they've plagued for years.

Hundreds of participants in five communities across northern Queensland snacked on sausages, sipped cold drinks and picked up prizes as the portly pests were weighed, measured and killed in the state's inaugural "Toad Day Out" celebration.

"To see the look on the faces of the kids as we were handling and weighing the toads and then euthanizing them was just...," Townsville City Councilman Vern Veitch said, breaking off to let out a contented sigh. "The children really got into the character of the event."

The toads _ which can grow up to 8 inches (20 centimeters) in length _ were imported from South America to Queensland in 1935 in a failed attempt to control beetles on sugarcane plantations. Trouble was, the toads couldn't jump high enough to eat the beetles, which live on top of cane stalks.

The toads bred rapidly, and their millions-strong population now threatens many local species across Australia. They spread diseases, such as salmonella, and produce highly toxic venom from glands in their skin that can kill would-be predators. The toads are also voracious eaters, chomping up insects, frogs, small reptiles and mammals _ even birds. Cane toads are only harmful to humans if their poison is swallowed.

Queensland politician Shane Knuth, a longtime nemesis of the cane toad who came up with the Toad Day Out idea, figured the best way to combat the problem was to gather Australians en masse for a targeted hunt. With each adult female cane toad capable of producing 20,000 eggs, he said, killing even a few thousand toads could ultimately wipe out millions.

On Saturday night, participants fanned out under the cloak of darkness to hunt down the toads. On Sunday, the toads _ which the rules stated must be captured alive and unharmed _ were brought to collection points and examined by experts to ensure they were not harmless frogs. The creatures were then killed, either by freezing or by being placed in plastic bags filled with carbon dioxide. Some of the remains will be ground into fertilizer for sugarcane farmers.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has applauded the effort, provided the toads are killed humanely.

In Townsville, organizers received around 3,600 toads from about 400 participants, said Andrew Hannay, coordinator of environmental management for Townsville City Council. Most of the toads will be donated to nearby James Cook University, with the biggest ones turned into souvenirs by local taxidermists, he said.

The largest toad weighed more than a pound (half a kilogram), Hannay said. The monster toad's captor received several movie passes and a trophy made out of a cane toad.

In Cairns, more than 100 people turned up at a collection point with around 1,000 toads, Toad Day Out organizer Lisa Ahrens said. The biggest was 5 inches (13 centimeters) long, weighed half a pound (290 grams) _ and had a fifth leg growing out of its chest.

There was a tussle over the creatures' corpses between a waste management plant and a local taxidermist. But in the end, Ahrens said, a compromise was struck _ the taxidermists stripped off the animals' skins, and the rest of the remains went to the plant to be turned into compost for cane farmers.

"So everybody's happy!" Ahrens said with a laugh.

Knuth, who has been pushing a proposal to offer a 40 Australian cent ($0.28) bounty on the animals since 2007, hopes to eventually turn Toad Day Out into a nationwide effort.

"This is an example of how the war against cane toads can be won," he said.