Profiles

The Frog Whisperer

How one man's fight against cystic fibrosis is waged in a backyard full of frogs.

Many years ago, Carl Pinard stopped at Meijer’s on the way home from work in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In the clearance section, he spied a plastic trough. It was about the size of a bathtub, but not as deep. It came with a dinky little water pump. It was a basic outdoor pond kit. It wasn’t something he needed. An accountant, Carl wasn’t the type of fellow to buy a plastic trough he didn’t need just because it was on sale. But on that day, that’s precisely what he did. He brought it home and stuck it in a corner of the back yard. He had no way of knowing that he had just changed his son’s life forever.

“I don’t really know what his thinking was,” Jeff Pinard recalls of his father’s purchase. Jeff was in high school at the time. He had been born with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder that clogs the lungs with mucus. “It’s like asthma times a hundred,” he explains. The excess secretions that clog the lungs can also clog the pancreas and liver, interfering with digestion and circulation.

Jeff has had cystic fibrosis since birth, but it wasn’t until his little sister was born with the same disease that he was diagnosed. For young Jeff, the family doctor had previously suggested his chronic lung infections were a matter of a weak constitution. The signs of malnutrition were just bad dietary practices. But with his little sister’s diagnosis, it all became clear. The curse of a bad genetic die roll had fallen on him and his sister.

Photo Aug 28, 2 36 01 PM

Jeff Pinard views his ‘frop bog’ as a metaphor, in its own way, for his cystic fibrosis.

For many children diagnosed back then, cystic fibrosis was almost literally a death sentence. “We had an encyclopedia set and one of the first things my mom did when we were diagnosed was look up cystic fibrosis. It said the life expectancy was six. I was six. As I’ve aged, the life expectancy has been going up because of the advances in medicine. And I’ve been right at that age. When I was 10, the life expectancy was 10. When I was 25, it was 25.”

The life expectancy for people with cystic fibrosis has continued to climb. Currently, it’s between 42 and 50. Today, Jeff Pinard is 45. And he’s looking out his bedroom window at something alive and gurgling and singing, something that started in that trough that sat in a corner of his family’s backyard when he was freshman in high school.

Today, Jeff Pinard is 45. And he’s looking out his bedroom window at something alive and gurgling and singing…

“One weekend my parents left on vacation and I was like, I’m going to build that pond and go buy some fish. And I did.” He pressed his sisters into service to help him dig a hole. They put the trough in it, filled it with water, and dropped in a few fish. When his parents returned, his father wasn’t thrilled at the extra work it would take to keep fish. But his mother cheerfully set about doing some landscaping to complement the new pond.

One day, going out to the pond, he discovered a frog was visiting from the wooded area behind their house. And then another the next day. And another, and another. The pond became a fish pond and a frog pond. “The frogs are so playful and dynamic. They play like children in surf. They hop around, they splash, they wrestle with each other. With the frogs, it was very full of life. It was a fascinating diversion. At that point, I decided when I finally get my own house, I’m going to make a way bigger version of this.”

But that wouldn’t happen for another decade or so. Jeff went to college, married a girl named Jen, and started a career in science, including cystic fibrosis research at the University of Michigan. When he bought his home in 1999, the digging started two weeks after he’d moved in.

Over the years, Jeff has created an incredibly intricate ecosystem in his Michigan backyard.

Over the years, Jeff has created an incredibly intricate ecosystem in his Michigan backyard.

But like Jeff, this frog pond didn’t have an easy childhood. For starters, cystic fibrosis limits how much work he can do. “I work for about five minutes, then I have to stop and rest for about ten to twenty minutes. It makes it very challenging, and frustrating at times.” What might take the average person a determined weekend can take months for someone with cystic fibrosis. His wife Jen works long and sometimes odd hours as a city dispatcher, but her help is a crucial part of building and maintaining the pond.

There were also educational hurdles to overcome. Jeff didn’t know much about the frogs he was determined to attract. His suburban neighborhood doesn’t have the benefit of a forest on the other side of his back fence. “There’s no source for frogs. There’s too much concrete, not enough trees, not enough wild anything. What I knew I had to do from the beginning was build an entire ecosystem.” Since it’s illegal to buy frogs in many states, Michigan included, Jeff bought 15 leopard frog tadpoles from a lab. For three months, he and his wife raised them indoors in stinking plastic bins of algae clogged water. Once they grew legs, shed their tails, and became bona fide frogs, they brought them out to the pond. “They were all gone within a day.”

The frogs are so playful and dynamic. They play like children in surf.

It turns out some frogs are more itinerant than others. “That’s when I realized I needed to pay attention to what kind of habitat what kind of frog would need. I figured out the green frog was the obvious choice.” This batch was more likely to stick around, but with some exceptions. “Every time there was a thunderstorm, a lot of the frogs would take off. What I didn’t find out until many years later is that even though green frogs might have the most perfect home in the world, safety, security, perfect water temperature, food, when a big rain comes, that’s their time to go out and seek other bodies of water. They need to spread their gene pool further beyond that one spot.”

So Jeff buried a few inches of chicken wire underneath his backyard fences. But since the frogs would be staying put, they needed a winter home. In cold weather, frogs go into torpor. They bury themselves in mud, slow their hearts to a couple of beats per minute, and get oxygen through their skin. The rocks along the bottom of the fish pond were no place for a frog to spend winter. So he built a separate winter bog on the other side of the yard. It’s four feet deep, but with two feet of silt and gunk along the bottom. Vegetation has run amok. “The winter bog really is like the Vietnam jungle in there.”

The frog bog was five years ago. Since then, the ongoing project has been a canal to circulate water, keeping it clear and reducing the amount of cleaning time. It’s an elaborate filtration system that runs for fifty feet in a horseshoe shape, ending in a waterfall that spills water into the pond. “In the winter, we keep the water running. The waterfall freezes in all kinds of cool patterns. There’s a tunnel that forms and you can see the water moving inside. It’s really magical.”

The pond, bog, and canal are all nestled into Jeff’s quarter acre backyard, designated the “frop bog” after an Ambien induced typo while talking to online friends. “The frogs move between all the areas,” Jeff says. “It really helps solve their wanderlust. So when it rains really hard, the ones hanging out in the winter bog will start to move and they run into the canal and they’re like, ‘ahhh, I don’t have to go any farther!’ And vice versa. The ones hanging out in the canal go to the pond or the winter bog and they’re like, ‘hey, I made it somewhere new!’.”

Right now, Jeff's frog pond is filled with 50 baby tree frogs, like this fella. Photo: Tony Alter

Right now, Jeff’s frog pond is filled with 50 baby tree frogs, like this fella. Photo: Tony Alter

The frogs are a big hit with children. Jeff and Jen don’t have kids, but they have plenty of nieces and nephews, as well as a handful of neighborhood kids eager to see the frogs. Kids naturally want to hold the frogs, so he shows them how to gently scoop up a frog from underneath. The real show is feeding the frogs by hand. Some of the frogs learn this is how they get delectable worms called red wrigglers. “Once they understand that, they will follow me around in the yard. We have to be very careful where we walk because they blend in so well.” When frogs in cartoons eat, they shoot their tongues across the room to grab a fly. But that’s not how real frogs eat. They pounce. “It’s all mouth,” says Jeff. “First you have to make sure to get him interested in the worm and not your finger. Nine times out of ten if you wiggle your finger, that’s bigger and better looking than the worm. It’s very…” He searches for the word. “…disconcerting when the frog mistakes your finger for a worm. He swallows it right up to his hips.”

Nature can be jealous of this small slice of frog heaven. Raccoons love to eat frogs. A trap sits by the canal. Any furry perps it catches are loaded into the car, driven into the forest out past the Grand River, and released. Neighborhood cats also love to eat frogs. Jeff sets the hose to shower and sprays them. He and Jen throw tennis balls at the mallards hungry for tadpoles. He says he doesn’t want to hurt them, but he wants to make them “uncomfortable”. Toads, which he describes as the cockroaches of the amphibian world, will eat young frogs. They get banished to a culvert behind the house.

This has been my way to cope with the fact of, well, I guess you could say imminent doom…

Although there’s still more to do, the frop bog is flourishing more than ever. Right now, there are about 50 baby tree frogs who will eventually wander off. The green frog population includes 20 adults, 20 babies, and about 40 tadpoles. The most promising sign is the number of female frogs, who are the bottleneck in the reproductive cycle. Last year, the frog population was only 10% female. This year, their ranks have swelled to 40%.

Jeff’s health can fluctuate wildly. “You can go from being normal one day to being on your deathbed in a couple of days. Things literally happen that fast.” He spends weeks at a time in the hospital, and is often bedridden at home, incapable of doing the work needed to finish the canal. He recalls that his grandmother spent her last days at home in hospice care. “She had a pond and garden and they set her up in a room so she could see out the window. It was peaceful and calming to her. I thought of that when I did my first version of the pond. I knew there would be times when I’m sick and stuck in bed and I want to be able to see it. Everything we do out there, I’ve got to be able to see it from the bed.”

Jeff

“Winter is tough. You lose your sense of life… but in spring, everything comes back to life…. That to me is the fulfillment of life.”

Jeff say his frog paradise is more than just a hobby. “It is all about life. This has been my way to cope with the fact of, well, I guess you could say imminent doom. The best way I can explain it is that winter is tough. You lose your sense of life. It becomes grey, dark, everything is covered with snow. But in spring, everything comes back to life. Seeing that new generation, whether it’s a plant growing, or new flowers, when the fish are starting to move, especially the frogs. That to me is the fulfillment of life. Being able to see life happen is amazing. It’s nurturing. I become a part of everything coming out of winter, out of stalled health, stalled life. It helps my health.”