I’m Sam Sundberg, owner of The Frog Ranch, the largest amphibian breeding and research facility in the world. We’re based in California and we’ve been in business for nearly 30 years supplying trade and wholesale customers in the USA and worldwide. We produce many thousands of frogs each year, predominantly Horned Frogs but we deal in several other species too.
We also do a fair amount of probono research work with government agencies and top universities.
Can you tell us a little about how Frog Ranch came to be?
I purchased The Frog Ranch around two years ago, taking over from the original owner and company founder when he retired. After 30 years of breeding frogs I guess it’s understandable he’d want to do something else. He started the business from a small, basic facility and, through years of experimentation and refinement, worked out how to breed Horned Frogs consistently and efficiently enough to build what is now the biggest facility of its kind in the world.
The facility and its methods were a closely guarded secret. Even when I’d agreed that I would buy the business, I didn’t see the inside the facility until we were in escrow. It was a bit like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Now I run the facility with a close-knit staff of people I trust, as our breeding and rearing methods are still protected. We aren’t ever open to the general public, so we can focus on the frogs.
Frog Ranch has a prestigious history in the frog world. Tell us a little about that.
I suppose we’re best known for producing the first Albino Horned Frog (Ceratophrys cranwelli) back in the early 1990s. It wasn’t something that was planned—the first albino simply turned up in a regular spawn. It was quite obviously an albino and so it was held back, grown up and bred back to one of its parents to produce the true genetic albino strain. Frog Ranch was also first to produce Brazilian Horned Frogs (C. aurita) and the first to produce Budgett’s Frogs in any significant numbers. But the Albino Horned Frog was the most significant stage in our history. We introduced the Albino Horned Frog to the pet trade in 1992, and the rest is history.
The wholesale price was $250 each at the time, however that price plummeted pretty quickly as others began breeding our frogs. The Albino Horned Frog was a genuine game changer in the reptile trade and put the species firmly on the map. We still ship our animals in boxes which say ‘Home of the Albino Horned Frog’.
How did you get involved?
Like most people in the trade, I’ve been involved with reptiles and amphibians since I was a kid. From around the age of eight years old, all I can remember was being crazy about animals and baseball. I did the typical stuff that kids like me did when you have so much native wildlife at your doorstep – catching turtles and frogs, chasing garter snakes – that kind of stuff.
As I grew older I got a decent collection of reptiles at home and that’s been a constant in my life ever since. I worked for Apple as a financial forecaster for many years, which was a fantastic job, but it wasn’t really a fulfilling vocation for me. It’s crazy I know, because my job with Apple was a job many people would love to have. But for me, it was always all about the animals. My job also used to involve lots of international travel, and I met a guy who ran a reptile business in St Tropez, and I thought ‘If he can do it, why can’t I?’ The idea stuck with me for a long time, so much so that my day job with Apple began to take a back seat while I formed a plan to launch my own reptile business.
Some people want the job security and the benefits and the parking space and the gold watch when they retire at 60, but that’s not me. I knew that I had to do something I was really passionate about, and that’s reptiles and amphibians. I launched Backwater Reptiles in August of 2011 and it grew quickly! I’m guessing my working week was around 50 – 60 hours long, but if you ask my wife she’d say it was more like 70. It was crazy busy, and we soon built a name for the business. Our website gets more traffic than any other reptile retailer in the country, and it’s still growing.
Through a series of uncanny events, I had learned that The Frog Ranch was for sale. While it took a while to agree on the details, but I was local and the time was right, and we eventually agreed to purchase terms in early 2017. I worked with the former owner closely for many months until the transfer of knowledge about the business and its processes was complete. This was on top of running Backwater Reptiles, so you can imagine how enormous the workload was at that time.
And how has it been since you took over?
We’ve been busy! I’ve recruited more staff to help with the day to day stuff at Backwater Reptiles, but we’ve also relocated The Frog Ranch to new, custom built premises. It took over two months to transition the business from one site to the other, and being local was key—it just couldn’t have been done remotely. It’s a state of the art facility and we don’t know of anything else like it in the world. I can’t tell you any specifics because the equipment and techniques we use are ground-breaking and it’s commercially sensitive information, but suffice it to say the facility is environmentally controlled and uses the most advanced water purification and biosecurity techniques. And the whole system is computer monitored using a range of custom equipment and unique methods. I’m quite proud of it!
What’s in the future for Frog Ranch?
There is a lot happening here. We’re growing and strategizing all the time. We’re currently developing more capacity to produce even more frogs each year. Some of the animals we produce can’t be bought anywhere else, and our quality genetics just can’t be matched, particularly by anyone breeding on a decent scale. There’s nobody breeding anywhere near what we produce each year, but our quality still shines though. We produce beautiful, strong, and healthy frogs, because we have the technology and the knowledge to do so, and our customers understand and appreciate that.
I guess I should also mention the race to breed a turquoise Horned Frog. I say it’s a race, but it’s been something a lot of people have been trying to do for decades, so it’s been more of a marathon, I guess. Turquoise frogs have been available in the past, but these aren’t really genetically stable strains as they rely upon the feeding of zero carotene diets. As soon as you switch the frog to a normal diet they go green again. We’re working on a genetically sound turquoise strain, but then, so is pretty much every Horned Frog breeder.
What advice can you give to keepers about Horned Frog husbandry?
People often try to set up their frogs with large bodies of water in semi-aquatic set-ups, but that’s really difficult to maintain. You’re much better off with a large water bowl which can be easily removed and cleaned. We also moved many of our frogs over to thawed food, just because it’s easier and safer that way. In the USA live feeding is much more common, but I can’t see any benefits to doing that with animals like Horned Frogs which will pretty much eat on cue.