Hey, kid! Like toads and salamanders? Detroit Zoo needs you to be mayor

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Royal Oak — The point of having a Mayor of Amphibiville at the Detroit Zoo is to put a human face on Wyoming toads and Japanese giant salamanders.

Wait ... Let's rephrase that.

Ruth Marcec-Greaves, who oversees the zoo's National Amphibian Conservation Center and its surrounding wetland village, will tell you they already have perfect faces. Where some might take a gander at a salamander or notice a newt and recoil, “I look at them and think they’re the cutest thing I’ve ever seen,” she said.

Trinity Favazza of Shelby Township, Mayor of Amphibiville at the Detroit Zoo, with Ruth Marcec-Greaves, director of the National Amphibian Conservation Center, peer at mantel habitat at the Detroit Zoo in Royal Oak on Friday, April 16, 2021.

What the next young mayor can do is put a human face on helping to save them. The application window is open through the end of the month, and if Master or Miss Mayor does the job as well as the incumbent, there might be some pretty cool travel involved.

Candidates need to be Michigan residents between 7 and 12 years old. They need to write an essay of no more than 100 words on what they can do to help amphibians. And it helps that if they see something crawling out from beneath a pile of sticks near a pond, they say "Wow!" instead of "Eww!"

Current office-holder Trinity Favazza, 14, of Shelby Township is unique among two decades of Amphibiville mayors in that she was chosen for a second term and then had that extended into 2021 because of the pandemic. She's typical, Marcec-Graves said, in that she was exposed early to the wonders of wood frogs and such.

Her dad, Chrysler  millwright Thomas Favazza, “would spend a lot of time with me in nature,” she said. At age 3 or 4, she was exploring ponds and parks with him, “seeing things up close and personal.”

As she grew older, she said, it struck her that few girls shared her fascination with insects and amphibians, let alone her willingness to cup them in her hands.

Amphibiville at the Detroit Zoo, which is in need of a new mayor.

But "just because it’s not some fluffy little cute furry animal doesn’t mean it’s not as important," she said. "We should care for them all equally."

Marcec-Greaves, 34, has built a career out of the same sentiment.

A veterinarian with a Ph.D. in amphibian reproduction, she recalls bringing her favorite animal to pet day in vet school at the University of Illinois —  a water-dwelling salamander called a Mexican axolotl, with “little gills on the side of its head almost like a feather boa. I think it’s charming.”

Even amid soon-to-be professional animal lovers, she was informed that it was gross. Neither she nor the axolotl cared.

Beset by human encroachment, climate change, disease and predators, with nearly half of all species considered threatened or worse, amphibians “are in terrible need of help,” Marcec-Greaves said. “I wanted to be there for them. I wanted to make sure they had a champion.”

Trinity, an 8th-grader at Malow Junior High, has already identified a three-pronged approach to the same goal.

The giant salamander habitat at the Detroit Zoo.

There’s fieldwork, she said, which among other things has meant recording frog calls in parks to help scientists learn more about what populations are located where.

There’s political action, a wide-net category that included being on the losing side when the Michigan legislature extended frog-hunting season to year-round in 2018 and made it legal to spear them in the glare of flashlights.

And, she said, there’s social media and overall awareness: Speaking to classes during Michigan Amphibian Conservation Awareness Week, maintaining the website she calls actionforamphibians, or drawing more than 100 kids to a park to paint amphibians on rocks and spread them around.

The first state amphibian awareness week was established by former Gov. Rick Snyder in December 2018 — after Trinity, then a 6th-grader, leaned on him to do it.

Cotton Family Wetlands at the Detroit Zoo.

"She's pretty amazing," said her mother, Angel Favazza, and while Favazza may be biased, she has souvenirs to support the claim.

Trinity has been invited to speak at an amphibian conservation symposium in Manchester, England, received an Action for Nature Eco-Hero Award in San Francisco, and was one of 10 students chosen to receive a 2018 President's Environmental Youth Award in Washington, D.C.

The Mayor of Amphibiville does not have a travel budget, alas, though at least her airfare and lodging were picked up by the conference for the trip to England.

"It's a stretch to pay for some of these things," said her mom, who teaches AP English at Sterling Heights Stevenson High School, but she and Thomas asked themselves, "When will we ever get the opportunity again?"

Then the honors and family trips kept coming, "and we thought, we'd better keep saving."

Trinity has been invited to speak at an amphibian conservation symposium in Manchester, England, received an Action for Nature Eco-Hero Award in San Francisco, and was one of 10 students chosen to receive a 2018 President's Environmental Youth Award in Washington, D.C.

Whether the environment will impact Trinity's ultimate career choice remains to be seen. She has other interests, among them competitive cheerleading, two dogs and a cat.

Then again, it's the rare 8th-grader who keeps three vividly colored poison dart frogs in an aquarium in the living room. Whatever she does for a living, she said, she expects amphibians and their cause to remain close to her heart.

As for the next mayor, the entry essays must be submitted by April 30, either via email to socialmedia@dzs.org or by post to Mayor of Amphibiville, Detroit Zoological Society, 8450 W. 10 Mile Rd., Royal Oak, MI 48067. All should include the candidate’s name, age, address and daytime telephone number.

The winner will receive a one-year family zoo pass, a two-year term and a plaque bearing his or her name hanging in the amphibian center.

The new mayor's constituents won't say much, but some of them will be jumping up and down.

The Kihansi spray toad at the Detroit Zoo.


Twitter: @nealrubin_dn.