As a child, I was obsessed with getting a pet but never allowed one. Dad bred St Bernard dogs and my mother grew up with a menagerie of animals, so neither wanted them at home.
Instead, I’d get bug-collecting kits and animal books for birthdays. I had a Tamagotchi digital pet and a massive collection of stuffed animals and Beanie Babies. I was always looking for a real animal friend. I’m now a singer-songwriter, actor and author, living in Los Angeles, with my partner, Jhor, and our three chihuahuas, Charlotte, Henri and Scarlet.
Four days before Christmas last year, while staying with friends in Tulsa, I pulled a half-eaten box of romaine lettuce out of the fridge to prepare a salad. I clocked a tiny tree frog motionless in the box; he was the exact colour of the leaves. I was amazed but concerned. He was so cold, I feared he’d gone into stasis. I had no idea how to keep this little guy alive.
I posted a video of him on Twitter and asked for advice. My phone blew up and I was contacted by some pretty knowledgable people. I searched Google, too. It was below freezing and too cold to set him outside, so I pierced holes in the lettuce box, put the frog back in and sprayed him with mineralised water. I added some leaves and drinking water, and closed the lid.
I continued documenting his life on Twitter and called him Tony. It seemed to suit him. By bedtime, thousands of people were invested in his fate.
I got up at 10am the next morning, oblivious to the fact that tree frogs are notorious escape artists. Tony had poked his way through a hole and was perched atop a wooden door frame.
A warm front was a few days away, so a local biologist advised to keep him indoors until then. I headed to a store and bought him wax worms to eat, and a hermit crab enclosure while I debated a permanent solution. Meanwhile, I had messages from people saying Tony’s story was making them smile, even cry. Their happiness blew me away.
I established that Tony had the markers of a male frog – a slender body, distinctive white line and loose skin under his neck – although I couldn’t work out his age.
As Christmas Eve approached, he escaped one more time, into the shower. I polled Twitter, asking whether I should keep him. There were 88,000 votes – 58% said “yes” – but I was still undecided.
As Christmas passed, I continued speaking to experts at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, then a frog specialist at National Geographic, who contacted me to say that the kindest thing to Tony and the environment would be to keep him as a pet. If he carried disease and wasn’t native to the region, releasing him risked the entire local ecosystem. That made up my mind; he would stay.
That first tweet has been seen 10m times. Not all the messages I received were kind. Some people were grossed out that a frog was in my groceries. Animal activists claimed I was keeping him for attention but I knew my intentions were authentic. I have always cared about conservation.
Tony lives a chill existence. He’s mischievous, incorrigible and precious. A pet company gave me $500 (£370) to spend on a gorgeous big terrarium with temperature control, a rock bath and plants. His lighting is synched with day and night because frogs are nocturnal.
He gets four or five crickets, every two days. For the most part he hides behind his leaves, occasionally hopping out at night.
The terrarium was too big to take back to LA, so I left Tony in Tulsa in the care of my nephew. It was emotional leaving him, but I’ll be back in April, and can’t wait to see him.
One of the most moving things about finding him was that a memory came back to me, from when I was 10: I was diagnosed with leukaemia, with a 50/50 chance of surviving, and begged my parents for a cuddly toy from the hospital gift shop. I found an old photo of me, holding it. It was a tree frog. Tony and I are both lucky to be alive. We are both survivors. In that regard, we’re kindred spirits.
As told to Deborah Linton
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