Where did the horny toad go?
It's not a bar joke, but the name of an Oklahoma City resident's film that will be shown Saturday at Harkins Theater in Bricktown as part of the 12th annual deadCENTER Film Festival.
Stefanie Leland's 74-minute wildlife documentary examines the decline of the Texas horned lizard in Oklahoma and the southwestern United States.
Leland, 32, hopes the film not only will educate viewers about the demise of the Texas horned lizard but “open up the idea of conservation of our native wildlife.”
Growing up in the small western Oklahoma town of Canute, Leland always had a passion about critters.
She first earned an undergraduate degree in biology from Southwestern Oklahoma State University before pursuing a career in film making.
She has merged both worlds, filming public service announcements on the environment and a documentary for the Sierra Club before embarking on her first feature film about those prehistoric looking lizards.
“People are fascinated with them because of their appearance,” Leland said. “They look like miniature dinosaurs. There are no other lizards like them in the United States.”
As a kid, Leland remembered picking a Texas horned lizard on her way home from school and bringing it home as a pet. Her mother made her return the lizard to the wild.
Leland got the idea for the documentary three years ago when she and her friends were discussing how it had been 20 years since they had seen any horned lizards.
“I hadn't thought about them in years,” Leland said. “You just don't hear about them anymore.”
So Leland went searching for those spiny little creatures that mesmerized her as a child.
“I just went out looking,” she said. “I really didn't know how to find them. I just learned.”
In her film, Leland interviewed more than two dozen biologists, researchers and ordinary citizens about Texas horned lizards.
What she discovered — along with some colorful horned lizard tales such as Old Rip, a legendary Texas horny toad, and how the lizards really do squirt blood from their eyes when frightened — is that they are disappearing from some places.
“The biologists say you can't pinpoint one specific thing for the decline,” she said. “There are a multitude of reasons.”
Invasive fire ants, commercial and residential developments, road kill, the pet trade — all have contributed over the years to fewer horned lizards, she said.
Mark Howery, wildlife biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, said Texas horned lizards are still common in the western third of the state, uncommon in central Oklahoma and almost absent in eastern Oklahoma.
The same west to east pattern also exists in Kansas and Texas, he said.
While they are not an endangered or threatened species, the widespread decline of Texas horned lizards has resulted in their classification as a “species of special concern.”
It is illegal to kill, capture or keep Texas horned lizards without special written permission from the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, which is rare.
“That's because of the population decline and because they have such a special diet,” Howery said. “They tend not to do well in captivity.”
Permission to keep Texas horned lizards is rarely given by the Wildlife Department, he said.
“When it is given, it's typically for public education or for research projects,” Howery said.
“Where Did the Horny Toad Go?” debuted at the Arizona International Film Festival in April.
After the deadCENTER Film Festival in Oklahoma City, Leland isn't sure what is next for her documentary, believed to be the first about the Texas horny toads.
She is selling DVDs and seeking television distribution.
“I would love to see it on PBS,” she said.
What: Where Did The Horny Toad Go? A documentary film on the Texas Horned Lizard
Where: Bricktown Harkins Theater
When: Saturday, June 9, 1:30 p.m.