Newt keepers and salamander hobbyists around the world are are familiar with the work of Dr. Frankenshrom from Transpennsylvania, Captive Breeder Extraordinaire and Purveyor of Newts and Springtail Cultures. (1)
So they are all jealous of the privilege which was mine, to drop in on his home last year to pick up some newts on my way back from a trip to Harrisburg PA.
When I arrived, he was just in the middle of boiling up a vat of marbled newts.
"Would you like to see how it's done?"
Always on the lookout for helpful newt tips, "Boy and how," I replied.
He showed me the mosh pit in the back yard where he cultivates the softest and smoothest mud around.
"The smoother the mud, the smoother the newts, that's one of my secrets. I have my clay imported from the Red Sea."
We progressed into the kitchen, where he had been in the process of mixing his special mud with toothpaste and some kind of olive oil salad dressing ("IT MUST BE ORGANIC", he stressed, "that's why my animals are Above Average"). (2)
He showed me some starter mixes he keeps (in the kitchen cabinet-- where else!; they keep their peanut butter, cornflakes, and spaghetti noodles in the bathroom closet. Yes, Michael, I was snooping).
"This is your basic recipe, and then I add specific ingredients for different species. I call it 'NewtMix'®."
He tossed in this and that, in proportions he would not reveal, along with a few other secret ingredients, though I caught a glimpse of "fenugreek" on the label of something in the spice rack.
"This is how I churn the stuffing. My wife sews the casings from the leaves of clivia plants, and at night after supper we sit in the kitchen and color them. Quality family time, and all that..."
We moved along the table. "The last thing we attach are the tails. These we make out of ribbons." Then he started to tie one on.
"Wow, that's some pretty fancy knotting," I admired.
"Thanks for noticing. When I was 14 I ran away from the Boy Scouts during a camping trip, just didn't fit in, you know, and I fell in with some fly fisherman...the things they taught me come in real handy when I'm fastening these."
Lastly, I had to ask, "And the eyes? what do you make them out of?"
"Funny you should ask..That's the hardest part. There's a shooting range a couple miles from here...if you look around, you can find
a lot of old pieces of shot and BBs in the grass and dirt...they work perfectly, though they are hell to gather. But once I have a bucketful or so, they last quite a while. I pop 'em right in, and they work great. Luckily I only need two per newt."
He paused, and then changed the subject. "So, would you like to see my stock?"
"Lead on, boss!", I cried.
He opened what looked like a regular basement door. Down, down we climbed, around and around a dank, secret stone spiral staircase. When we got to the bottom, I discretely looked away as he dialed the numbers on a combination lock,
allowing a final door to be opened. We entered a room that struck me with awe: tanks, tanks, and more tanks, everywhere.
Hanging from the ceiling, dug into the floor, sitting on racks, growing from the walls. In between the tanks and under the tanks, were more tanks.
Here and there were buckets of various objects. He saw me looking at them with a puzzled expression and explained:
"I do have to occasionally procure odd ingredients for specific species, like the gross of marbles I needed for today, the brick of uranium I needed for those recent batch of GFP -- the green fluorescent protein-- axolotls."(3) He nodded in the direction of a glowing green pool. "I had to gather buckets and buckets of morning glory blossoms for last year's two barrels of dobrogicus."
"Blossoms? What do you need them for?" "Have you ever seen one in full breeding dress? There is nothing so colorful and delicate as a dobrogicus breeding crest. These don't have them glued on yet."
"Rough-skinned newts require a little bit of kitty litter injected under the skins, and it ABSOLUTELY has to be the non-clumping kind", he added.
"And, as you would expect, I use mayonnaise instead of salad dressing for the albino axolotls."
Then he concluded: "This year the local sofa factory went belly-up and I lucked out with a whole lot of discount upholstery needles. You know, the arched needles that curve around for sewing furniture edges. I'm fortunate that it's been a rainy summer with lots of lightning; business has been good. And with all the needles , it's been a bumper year for Sharp-Ribbed newts." And indeed, it seemed every other tank was full of Pleurodeles waltl. I was fortunate; these are what I had come to get. But still I looked around.
"I don't see many Alpine newts. What's up with that?", I asked.
"Well, Alpine newts are available only every few years, as Edelweiss imports are sporadic and they are a vital ingredient for that species."
"You've got a lot of Fire Salamanders. I've never seen such a collection!"
"Well, my son is a volunteer for the local fire company and he brings them home from work. See here, this one is still covered with ashes."
"Didn't you say something about having a rare kind of crayfish?", I asked. "Oh yeah! You've got to meet him."
He stuck his fingers into his beard and pulled out his monster crayfish. "That's where I keep him. He likes it in there, though he got lost for a month last year. After that, the wife made me trim the beard some."
"I have a package to prepare. Do you mind?" We went back up the spiral staircase and he took me into the yard to his Shed Full of Boxes Lined with Styrofoam.
"I started with two, and left them for a while, and they bred themselves! Sure saves money."
"Don't feel bad. At home, I have a whole room lined with padded foam rubber."
"Now come out into the side yard, and I'll show you my most secret of secrets. Just promise not to tell anyone, or publicize it in any way.
And for god's sake, keep me out of that silly blog of yours."
"Word of honor, boss."
"Inside this tree is a huge metal rod. It attracts and focuses lightening. After the newts are all stirred, stitched and stuffed, I hold off until the weather is right.
Then when there's a thunderstorm, I put the latest batch into this concrete cauldron, attach one end of these jumper cables to the tree, and the other I stick into the water. Then the magic happens, and the toothpaste and salad dressing stuffed clivia leaves crawl to life as Frankenshrom's Amazing Newts!"
And with that, the tour was over.
No one can deny that he does good work. My own beloved Eddie and Elektra (Himalayan crocodile newts) were created in his lab. I met their grandparents!
As he escorted me to my car he politely asked, "And how are their larvae (babies) getting on? I haven't checked the salamander forum recently for your five-minute updates and I'm dying to know how many worms Elektra ate today."
"Getting bigger every day, and growing like weeds," I replied.
"Here, take these, you'll be needing them soon," and he tossed me a glittery bag. "Orange rhinestones! Wow!", I exclaimed.
"You glue them on after the larvae turn brown and their gills get shorter by half. Make sure you don't use Krazy Glue, it affects their personalities".
I shook his hand, and was sad to go. "Thanks", I managed in wonder, and packed it in.
"Come on," you might ask, "do you really expect us to believe that Michael is really a mad scientist who has a lab in subterranean tunnels?"
OK, OK, I'll come clean. The truth of the matter is, as a moderator on Caudata.org, it is my privilege to completely abuse the considerable power of my position as I see fit, and to extort favors and merchandise wherever I can.
I had to go to Harrisburg last year, and so I thought I would call Mr. Shrom and tell him I'd be passing through the area, and if he wanted to remain a forum member in good standing, he would give me a tour and maybe throw in a couple of newts as well.
So I called him up and spent a few minutes notifiying him that
"It is time for your first ever annual caudata.org inspection....yes, I am authorized...no, you don't need to check with the Administrators on the forum..."
Pretty good haul, don't you think? Who should I inspect next?
Here are a couple more pictures from my visit.
This is a rare and valuable "Iranian Harlequin Newt." Look, you can see a gilled larva in the foreground, in the same tank with the adult.
Michael is a man who loves his crayfish:
I guess they kind of grow on you....get it? Get it?
(1) Springtails are tiny bugs that we feed to baby newts and salamanders.
(2) The name of his business is "Above Average Amphibians."
(3) GFP axolotls glow in the dark.