He sells turtle hearts, nymphs and embalmed clams . . . Queer way to make a living? To Fred Troyer it’s a crusade — and fun, too
C. FRED BODSWORTH
WOULD you like to buy an assortment of snail eggs at 85 cents a dozen, a few turtle hearts at two dollars each, or maybe the skin of a garter snake for $2.15? Not interested? Well, then, how about a dozen preserved earthworms, bargain price 98 cents, or a live bullfrog guaranteed to be in good health, for one dollar— rates reduced if larger quantities desired?
You will find these and hundreds of other related items for sale at Canada’s strangest farm, 15 miles north of Toronto. They are not merely for sale; stranger still, they are being sold, and in quantities so large that the youthful originator and owner of “Troyer Natural Science Service” is frequently four to six months behind in filling orders.
Sprague Troyer, 30-year-old self-trained biologist, has turned a queer hobby into an even queerer means of making a living. And despite the fact that his work has a few admittedly unpleasant tasks like hunting down rattlesnakes to bring them in alive and wading cold waist-deep streams in the middle of the night, he insists he wouldn’t trade it for anything else at double the salary.
The reason is that his business is more than the means of a livelihood; to this modest soft-speaking chap, who looks like a schoolboy and talks like a college professor, his work is a crusade. Troyer’s main customers are the teachers of biology in Canadian high schools and universities. To Troyer, biology is the basic science which should form the foundation of all education, and he deplores his observation that biology is not made interesting for students.
“Too often it is taught as a textbook subject,” he declares. “Students get little opportunity to observe living animals and study demonstration materials that will link their lab work with the Canadian countryside.”
He “Cans” Salamanders
IT IS this situation that Troyer is striving to correct. I got a quick sample of the results when I sat in his office a few weeks ago as he hurried through his morning’s mail, before setting out on a frog hunting expedition. He handed me what he explained was a typical order from one of the Toronto collegia tes.
This is what I read: 25 preserved earthworms
for student dissection; one dozen preserved dragonflies for class study of external features; squash bug eggs in a vial of preserving fluid to round out the collegiate’s collection of insect eggs; a Monarch butterfly caterpillar (the collegiate’s present specimen was damaged last year); a mounted female crayfish carrying eggs; a collection of six mounted insects showing protective coloration; three dozen live earthworms, a half-dozen live crayfish, one dozen dragonfly nymphs, two live millipedes and a bottle of mosquito larvae and pupae, all to be reared in the school laboratory for the observation of life habits; a culture of small white earthworms to be raised at the school as aquarium food; a unit of microscopic water animals sufficient for 50 students; 10 aquarium minnows to include two sticklebacks and two catfish; four live newts and two water snails; three bunches of water plants; 25 pounds of aquarium sand and one aquarium net.
High-school orders of this type range from one dollar to $50.
Last year Sprague Troyer collected and sold about 10,000 frogs at an average price of 10 cents each. Approximately half were sold alive to universities and medical laboratories for experimental research and half as preserved specimens to high schools. Another big seller is perch. Armed with a special government permit, Troyer catches and sells about 2,000 of them a year for the fish studies of collegiate and university classes.
All these creatures he collects himself and then either preserves or holds alive at his Oak Ridges “bug farm.” Most of his collecting trips are carried out in streams and woods within 15 miles of his home, but frequently it is necessary for him to make an expedition to Lake Erie in search of specimens not common in the Toronto region and to Bruce Peninsula for rattlesnakes.
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His premises can best be described as a zoo, a fish hatchery, a museum, an embalming parlor, the morgue and Noah’s Ark all tossed together into one two-acre unit.
Two rooms in his basement are lined with hundreds of jars on typical fruitcellar shelves. But the preserved “fruits” at a closer glance turn out to be frogs, snakes, crayfish, insects, earthworms, salamanders and fish, all in carefully labelled jars of preserving fluid. I lifted the top from a barrel; it was three-quarters full of clams in a solution of formaldehyde. There were several other barrels and wooden buckets. I left the tops of these alone.
20,000 Dried Bugs
On the second floor I was ushered into the insect room, stored to capacity with glass-topped trays containing dried specimens of brightly tinted butterflies and moths, and hundreds of beetles and flies ranging from mites of pin-point size to waterbugs three inches long.
“I’m not surehow many insects I have in stock now,” Troyer said. “Probably around 20,000. I’ll have to add many this summer but when I fill the fall orders I’ll use a lot of them, maybe almost half.”
Next we went out to a double garage. One room contained several dozen glass aquariums about one foot square filled with live newts, salamanders, turtles and numerous varieties of tadpoles. The other room had four large metal tanks. Two of them swarmed with minnows, a third was a squirming mass of frogs, the fourth was empty.
“There are about 400 frogs there now,” he said, “and we’ll catch 400 or 500 for the other tank before tonight.” (His advance estimate was not far out. I went along on the frog hunt and kept score. The count at the end of the day was 378.)
Final housing project on the Troyer bug ranch is a small barn at the rear of the lot in which rabbits and white rats are reared.
Troyer hedges tactfully when he is asked about profits. “There isn’t a big profit in the high school trade,” he says, “because preservatives, demonstration cases, shipping containers and a lot of other expenses come high. I’d have to sell $8,000 to $10,000 worth of high-school stuff a year to make it pay very well.”
Troyer’s conscientious effort to provide schools with specimens that best illustrate their courses of study cuts profits still lower. Sometimes he spends days seeking out a certain insect or animal to complete a demonstration series when something suitable, but not the best, could be secured in a few hours.
“The university trade pays better,” he says, “for they need larger quantities, but it is just in the last year or two that I’ve been developing this phase of the work.”
“There isn’t a lot of money in the business, there is just a living,” he says. “But I’m not in it to get rich. If I wanted to do that I’d hire a dozen men
to do my collecting while I stayed home behind my desk, wearing a white collar and a tie, and built up a coast-to-coast business.
“I think I could do it. But I’m in it to improve the teaching of biology in schools and . . .” here he shrugs boyishly, “. . . well, I’m in it because it’s fun. I don’t know any other job that would let me spend most of my time running around through the woods and marshes.”
Go with Troyer on a collecting safari and every blade of grass and every tiny pond becomes a fascinating world swarming with a life that is as foreign as Mars to the average man. With you is Frank Fog, Troyer’s man Friday, and the expedition begins with a toothshaking ride across back-country roads that, more than likely, haven’t seen a grader since the Model-T era. Troyer’s panel truck, always laden heavily with fish tanks, buckets of sloshing preserving fluid, nets and other equipment, has taken part in so many of these miniature game hunts that it leaps along more like a grasshopper than an offspring of Henry Ford’s mechanical genius.
The truck stops suddenly at a roadside culvert as it terminates one of its jack-in-the-box leaps.
“What are those fish?” Troyer asks. “Suckers,” says Frank Fog. “No,” replies Troyer. “They’re swimming too high off the bottom. Most of them are chub, but there are three or four black-nosed dace amongst them and one rainbow darter.”
You look, but, strain your eyes as you may, you see only a few darting movements along the stream bed— movements which to your unpracticed eye might be anything from tadpoles to sea serpents. Troyer and Fog whip out a seine net and a minute later the truck will be bouncing on again. The score for the first stop: 12 chub, four black-nosed dace and one rainbow darter.
War Among Insects
Two months later these fish will be bumping their noses against the glass sides of school aquariums’ tanks, and when the biology teacher talks about black-nosed dace and rainbow darters his class will know from personal observation what teacher is talking about.
Your next stop is beside a tree which has several branches denuded of leaves by caterpillars. Troyer jumps out to examine some of the leaf-feasting larvae.
“White-marked tussock moth,” he announces as he shows you some of the vividly colored red, black and white caterpillars, “but ichneumon flies are killing them off pretty fast.”
Then, through Troyer’s eyes, you are treated to a newsreel picture of ruthless war in the midget world of insects.
“There are many species of ichneumon flies which live as parasites on the larvae of other insects,” he says. “They are nature’s shock troops; without them caterpillars would become so numerous that in a year or two there wouldn’t be a green leaf left anywhere. The flies lay their tiny white eggs on the backs of the tussock moth caterpillars. Nature works fast and the eggs hatch within a few hours. Then the ichneumon larvae, sometimes 15 of them on a single caterpillar, start burrowing into the moth larvae. In three or four days the parasite larvae are full grown and the moth caterpillar, with much of his innards eaten out, is dead. They spin their cocoons and six days later emerge as adult ichneumon flies. Thus, in two weeks, there is another generation all ready to wage war on the tussock moth caterpillars that escaped the first generation of parasites.
“But it isn’t always easy pickings for the ichneumon flies, because they have parasites too,” Troyer continues. “You know the verse—‘Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em; little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.’ It applies here. When ichneumon flies have just about wiped out the tussock moths, secondary parasites in the form of a smaller species of fly appear and start wiping out the ichneumon flies. Then there is a tertiary parasite which preys on the secondary ones. There might even be a fourth parasite in the chain, but if there is I don’t believe anyone has ever discovered it.”
Before moving on, Troyer collects a few dozen of the caterpillars which have minute ichneumon fly eggs on their backs. He will use them in a demonstration series of mounted insects which will illustrate for high school and university students how the parasite war is waged on the battle fronts of the insect kingdom.
“That’s the kind of thing that makes biology interesting,” says Crusader Troyer as the truck grasshoppers on. “And that’s what students should study, not a lot of dogmatic stuff about some insects being beneficial and others injurious. Every creature has its essential role, even houseflies, for if there weren’t flies and maggots there would be a very slow system of decay and every farm would have a manure pile higher than its barn.”
Along about now you will be looking more closely at this slim, five-footseven supercharge of energy with the boyish brush cut and the encyclopediac j mind. And you will begin to under; stand, too, why despite his youth he is ¡ sought as a nature camp leader and natural science speaker. Troyer tries j to save some time each summer to j spend instructing teachers at summer nature schools and he is a frequent leader of springtime nature hikes around Toronto. During the fall and winter he is a popular speaker, rarely turning down an engagement when it is j a group of teachers that desires his services.
Frank Fog runs bis boss a close second in enthusiasm for their strange trade. A Danish-born commercial artist, Frank threw overboard an engraving business and a comfortable city living and moved to the country because he wanted to live with nature. For several weeks Fog was fascinated by that roadside sign, “Troyer Natural Science Service,” every time he drove past. But be could think of no excuse for driving in and satisfying a growing curiosity. One day, however, Troyer j had a sign out saying “Rabbits Wanted.” This would be Fog’s longj awaited entree ticket, for he had about j 50 rabbits at home.
“I turned the car around, rushed back home and picked up the first rabbit I could get my hands on,” Fog related. “When I drove back into Troyer’s yard a young chap came out I to meet me. ‘Where’s your dad, the boss?’ I asked him. “I’m the boss,’ he said. I was disillusioned. I expected to find someone like a professor with a pointed beard and glasses on a black ribbon.
“But I soon found out that Trover had more firsthand knowledge of natural science than any professor I'd ever met. After that, whenever I wanted to enjoy an enlightening conversation, I picked up another rabbit and drove over to Troyer’s. One day I let it slip out that I had 50 rabbits back home and Troyer immediately made
me his hired man. I think he was just after my rabbits; but I’m like my boss, I’d sooner wade creeks than do anything else, so I agreed to take the job at whatever salary he wanted to pay.”
Troyer’s familiarity with goings on in the insect kingdom has brought SOS calls from odd places. Last year a Toronto textile firm developed a material which they hoped would he repellent to clothes moths and carpet beetle larvae. But they weren’t sure. Troyer provided them with a few hundred ravenous cloth-eating insect larvae, superintended tests for several weeks and finally assured them that the new textile was as good as advance hopes had envisioned it to he.
Another firm was testing a new insect repellent containing DDT. The tests hogged down when they ran out of mosquitoes and flies. Trover collected eggs and larvae from ponds and reared them several thousand mosquitoes in a few days. “If those skeeters had ever gotten loose when I was driving through Toronto to deliver them, the citizens would have thought that a new kind of bacterial war had hit them,” he says.
You’ll notice as you walk along with Troyer on one of his “hugging” expeditions t hat he never passes a log or plank without rolling it over and looking beneath.
“A lot of little critters live under logs,” he will explain. “You find newts, salamanders, snakes and all manner of insects that way. Once I rolled over a log and saw what appeared to he two large garter snakes underneath. I grabbed the tail of one and the head of the other, hut when I picked them up I discovered it was all the same snake. He was 50 inches long, the biggest garter snake ever officially recorded for Canada or the United States. A garter snake 36 inches long is regarded as a big one. The 50-incher is still alive at the Royal Ontario Museum of Zoology in Toronto.”
Troyer “oh pshaws” his rattlesnake hunts as just another collecting job.
“I’ve made three or four rattlesnake collecting trips to Bruce Peninsula and I’ve caught a couple of dozen rattlers by hand,” he says, telling it casually. “The rattler, you know, is overrated; after you become experienced and know their habits they are not much more vicious to tangle with than a honey bee.”
Troyer’s only equipment when he goes rattlesnake hunting is a heavy stick and a pair of padded leather gloves to protect his hands. When Troyer and Mr. Rattlesnake meet he drops the stick across the snake and then slowly moves the stick up along the rattler’s body until its head is pinned against the ground. Then the serpent can safely be grasped just behind its head and transferred alive and uninjured to a carrying cage.
Caught With the Goods
“I’ve never been bitten by a rattlesnake, and I don’t believe I’d worry very much if I were,” Troyer says. “No one has officially been proven to have died from the bite of our Ontario species of rattlesnake. There have been a few deaths caused by other infections setting in after rattlesnakes—but not from the venom itself. A rattler bite should he regarded as serious, but it is far from critical, for our Massasaga rattlesnake is so small that it possesses only a small amount of venom and its fangs are too short to penetrate very deeply.”
Most collecting of aquatic animals has to be done at night, for it is then that they are most active feeding and in darkness they are easier to catch. But Troyer’s biggest headache on these midnight jaunts is not finding his way in the dark—it is explaining his queer mission to suspicious police officers who usually turn up just in time to frighten away the night’s rarest specimen.
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“I disillusioned a dozen different rookie cops around Toronto at various times during the war when I convinced them that I wasn’t out blowing up munition plants,” Troyer says. “Two o’clock one morning after I had been catching newts and mud puppies in Grenadier Pond I came back to where I had left my t ruck in High Park to find two police cruisers and half a dozen constables gathered around. They had pulled out the seat, taken off the engine cover and were starting to tear down the motor looking for a supercharger, because they suspected me of running drugs or liquor. 1 told them my business, but they weren’t in any hurry to believe me. Then I showed them the night’s catch. Mud puppies look like lizards but they have exterior gills similar to fish. One of the constables glanced into my collecting pail and shouted: ‘Look, the guy’s been catching fish with legs!’ They decided I was as queer and harmless as the mud puppy. But it took me and one of the officers 15 minutes to get the truck motor back in shape again.”
It required a great deal more explaining to clear himself when two cruiser officers spotted Troyer late one night with a ladder up to the second-floor window of a North Toronto store. “There are a couple of lights up there that attract large numbers of moths,” he relates. “I went out collecting with a butterfly net and a stepladder. The police arrived and had a firm grip on me, the net and the ladder before I had been there three minutes. Half a dozen different credentials and half an hour of arguing failed to convince them that I was collecting only the storekeeper’s moths. Finally 1 had to telephone the principal of one of the collegiates before they turned me loose.”
Troyer’s interest in the field and woodland folk is not the outgrowth of a rural childhood. He was born in Toronto, a typical city lad who thought milk came only from bottles and that honey bees were merely armed houseflies. When Sprague was 10 years old his elder sister, a student at Oakwood Collegiate, was asked to collect and mount 100 insects as a school project. The sister thought it a repulsive job. Everyone in the family sympathized with her. Brother Sprague agreed to help so as to get the disagreeable assignment finished as soon as possible. But Sprague 1 Voy er’s insect chasing, begun that year at the age of 10, has continued steadily ever since.
Two years later, still in public school, Troyer was already rebelling against the old biological clichés and figuring things out instead from his own observations. One woman teacher placed a horsetail hair in a container filled with slimy pond water to prove to Troyer that it would turn into a hair snake. Three weeks later the teacher triumphantly pointed out to Troyer that the erstwhile horsehair was now moving about in the water with snakelike movements. Troyer placed it under a magnifying glass and showed her that the movements were due to hundreds of parameeium and other minute water animals clinging to the hair.
Troyer and three companions once collected a number of ladybird beetles
during a recess and released them in the classroom when lessons resumed. The teacher announced that the four mischief-makers were to receive a strapping, but that he would first use the incident as an occasion for a lesson in biology. Whereupon he told the class that ladybird beetles were very injurious for they matured into potato bettles.
Sprague was on his feet quickly to protest. He quoted zoological sources and his own experience and convinced the teacher that ladybird beetles are but distantly related to potato beetles, and since they feed on injurious insects they are one of the most beneficial we have. When the strapping session began Troyer received a double dose; but the teacher refused to conduct any more natural history lessons that season.
Troyer’s first year in high school was at Oakwood Collegiate. Here for the first time he bumped up against the inadequacy of biological teaching materials, for all specimens studied came from the U. S. When he learned there was no source in Canada from which schools could buy native Canadian specimens for study, Troyer’s presentday crusade began to take shape in his mind.
“Students at that, time would sit down in September to study the life and habits of the grasshopper,” he says. “But the preserved or mounted specimens we were given to examine would be some strange species from Texas or Tennessee. The crickets and grasshoppers singing outside in our own schoolyards would be ignored.”
In 1937 when he graduated from upper school Troyer didn’t have to go job hunting. He already had a lusty business in biological supplies, and it was growing lustier each year as his reputation spread.
For several years, while in high school, he had been supervising and stocking the fish, reptile and amphibian section of the Children’s Zoo at the Canadian National Exhibition. Here, during the Exhibition’s last wartime year, a slim sun-browned girl stopped frequently to ask questions. But the questions she asked were not the absurd queries that Troyer had learned to expect from feminine members of his
audience. She knew natural science almost as thoroughly as Troyer himself.
On the final day he subjected her to his crucial test. They were discussing snakes. Troyer picked up a large specimen from the snake pit and handed it casually to her for examination. There was no scream of alarm, not even a shudder. She accepted it unconcernedly, held it fora few minutes and then handed it back just as casually to Troyer.
Mary Crawford didn’t know it then, but Troyer’s courtship had begun.
It was a courtship of the woods and creek valleys, not the usual movie and dance hall variety. Troyer told her of his plans for building up the natural science service idea into a full-time activity. Mary was enthused. In 1941 they temporarily abandoned the bug hunting and went house hunting instead. A few weeks after finding the Oak Ridges two acres, they were married.
Kids Play With Spiders
Troyer’s own family (twin boys, aged four, and a girl, two) illustrate the training he would like to see all children receive. Snakes, spiders and caterpillars are their playmates. No one tells them: “Throw it away, it’s
dirty and it will bite.” When a bee stings one of them they are shown that usually it is their fault, not the bee’s. When a robin takes cherries they are told that it is not a thief, but a hungry bird. “If we want the robin to eat grubs in the garden, we must expect it also to eat a few cherries, for robins were eating cherries thousands of years before men like daddy ever thought of planting cherry trees.”
“Until mankind develops a sympathetic attitude like that toward the wild creatures, we will always lie at odds with nature,” Troyer claims. “We will have floods because we thoughtlessly cut down forests. We will have rodent pests in every field and every barn, because we have shot off the hawks and owls that once kept the pests in check. And we will have nationalism, racial discrimination and wars, for only through a knowledge of biology can people be made to understand that all mankind and all nature is actually one vast unit with each segment dependent on the rest.” ic