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A Guide to Shipping Dart Frogs

Over the years of shipping reptiles and amphibians to my customers, I have come up with some ideas of what makes a successful shipment. By now it all seems like common sense to me, but based on the shipments I get occasionally from people who haven't done much shipping, it is probably less intuitive than I think. So I thought it would be a good idea to put together a set of recommendations regarding shipping reptiles and amphibians, particularly dart frogs.

First, the animals must be shipped via an over night service. The animals should spend no more than about 20 hours in their box, which can be achieved in most cases by packing your animals and getting them into the hands of the over night service in the afternoon. Most services can pick up or accept packages into the late afternoon. Avoid turning the box over to the shipper any earlier than required, especially when temps aren't moderate.

Second, the box the animals are shipped in should be solid Styrofoam, with out holes. Sheet Styrofoam will not offer the protection that solid product does. Do not make holes in the box, the frogs do not need airholes for the short duration they are in the box. Standard “fishboxes” available at many pet stores for free or for a few dollars are ok, but the Styrofoam material is only ¾” thick, and does not offer the level of protection that I prefer. I use 1.5” thick Styrofoam boxes for all my shipments. I have received quite a few boxes of animals in plain cardboard, and in some cases they were alive, but this type of packing offers minimal insulation, and if the box is subjected to any temperature extremes, the animals inside will be dead on arrival. My philosophy is that my control ends when I hand over the package to the delivery service, and I want to offer as much protection as is reasonably possible. People often forget that this box will be going up to about 30 thousand feet, in the cargo hold of an airplane, where the average temperature is in the teens year round. If the box is put in the right place in the cargo hold, it will be in the fifties or sixties, but if it is put near a cargo door, or against the outer skin of the plane, it can get down to below freezing, even when it's a hundred degrees outside.

Inside the box, the animals should be individually cupped. If absolutely necessary two similar size frogs may be put in the same cup, but it greatly increases chances of a doa with one or both. I use the glad “mini round” containers, you can get the four oz. ones from the grocery store in eight packs, for about $3.00 per eight. These are great for juveniles and smaller frogs. Larger frogs may need something a bit bigger, but I routinely ship sub adult tincs in the mini rounds.

Cups should have a bit of padding inside, something for the frog to get on and get a little comfort from, and also keep the frog from going all over in the cup, when the box is tumbled about as it will be. I put about a ¼ teaspoon of water in my cups, and some plant cuttings. Be very careful not to put too much water in the cup, occasionally your frogs may lose consciousness in flight, due to cold temps, and drown if they are then laying in water that can cover their nostrils.

Many people use paper towels in their cups, but I have pulled several dead frogs out from under a piece of heavy paper towel that had flopped over on them in transit. This is particularly true with froglets, which are small and weak. Sphagnum moss seems to work well, although it's a fine line between to dry and too wet, when too wet it can also crush small frogs such as thumbnails and froglets. Cups should have a single small hole for some ventilation, but try to keep it small so the water doesn't run out when the box is tipped or tumbled. Make the hole from the inside out. Holes pushed in from the outside in leave sharp edges that will cut the frog up like a cheese grater. I can recall receiving a shipment of adult frogs that had been put in cups with multiple holes punched down through the lid. When I got the box, I could hear them jumping around inside their cups, and when I opened it up, they all had multiple abrasions and scratches on their heads and snouts. Many got infections and died as a result.

Heat packs and cold packs are sometimes helpful to protect against extreme temps, but are risky to use, particularly in the same box as the frogs them selves are in. I never put a heat pack in the box with frogs, if I feel it is required to use a heat pack, I use several in a larger outer box that surrounds the Styrofoam box. The heat packs heat the air in this space, and buffer the inside box. Heat packs sold at discount stores and sporting goods stores as hand or toe warmers are worse than useless. They have a short “burn time” and burn very hot. So in some cases they will over heat the box and kill your frogs before the box has even gotten on its way good, and then burn out by midnight of the day you shipped the animals. At least a twenty hour heat pack is recommended. You can obtain good quality heat packs from a variety of reptile dry goods sources. Room temperature or slightly chilled gel packs are sometimes used when it is hot, to help absorb heat as it enters the Styrofoam box. The drawback to them is that if the box gets cold in its flight, this gel will hold the cold temps and keep your frogs cold longer.

This covers most aspects of packing the frogs, now a few pointers on actually shipping them. First things first, you need to chose a carrier. My first choice would be the US Postal Service. They offer pretty good service, and very reasonable rates. The other carriers, such as Fed Ex, UPS, and DHL, are all much more expensive. Most of this additional charge is due to the way they figure the weight of your box. This is called “dimensional weight” and means that your 20 inch square box figures to weigh about 30 pounds, by their method of calculation. So needless to say, it will cost $75 to ship it over night with Fed Ex! The same box, with an actual weight of 4 pounds, will cost you $28.50 to ship through the postal service. Many people are vehemently opposed to one shipper or another, and the post office is on more peoples list than not, but the truth is they all screw up, and none of them will give you a dime for your dead animals when they do. Don't even waste your time trying to get a claim going. The only refund you will ever get on a live animal shipment will be for the shipping charge, so know that going in. All the services currently accept frogs and lizards as cargo. Some employees of these organizations are not aware of this, but they do.

When temps are questionable, you will want to follow a few procedures to minimize the risk to the animals. First, get the shipment into the services hands at the last possible moment. The longer they are sitting at your house in the climate control, the better they are. Do not let the service pick up the animals at 1 in the afternoon when temps are hot or cold. The box is likely to ride around in the back of that truck for hours, until the animals are dropped off at the hub, possibly already dead of over heating or too chilled to survive. Call the service to find out where and when the latest dropoff time in your area is. Another approach is to simply wait for a rainy day in your area, this tends to minimize problems on your end.

To cover the risks on the receiving end, you might have the package held for pickup, either at the post office, or a station of the shipper. UPS and Fed Ex both have many “stations” now, as they have the Fed Ex Kinkos and the UPS stores, and both of these outlets provide considerable safety over the shipment being sent to the receivers address. Many things can happen on the way to your house! I recently had a package fail to reach me in the morning as it was guaranteed, and even though I was at home waiting for it, the driver misread the address, and tried to deliver it to my neighbors, who were not home. Whoops! After the shipper called and got on them, the Fed Ex driver brought it out again, and still tried to deliver it to my neighbors house! So when temps are questionable, start reducing risks.

If you are reasonably cautious, and with a bit of luck, your package will arrive safely at its destination. I ship over 2000 frogs a year, and would guess that perhaps less than 15 of them arrive dead, so its not a risky process. Hope the above helps, and don't hesitate to drop me a note if you need more help! Happy Frogging!

Patrick