by Arin Greenwood
Three days ago I went outside my house in St. Petersburg, Florida, and found a butterfly struggling on my front path. She was flapping and trying to fly, but couldn’t get off the ground. I bent down to look more closely and saw she was missing half of one of her wings.
I considered leaving the butterfly where she was. She’d get eaten by a bird, I thought. It was not a bad way to die.
But instead I picked her up and brought her inside.
I placed the butterfly in a cardboard box, not knowing what else to do with her. The internet told me to put milkweed in the box in case the butterfly had eggs to lay. I went into the yard and picked some milkweed, and put it in the box. She seemed excited by the milkweed, working to get herself on it. It looked to me like she was making egg-laying, gyrating-like sorts of motions that maybe meant something. When she stopped, I put the milkweed leaves back outside with the rest of the milkweed, thinking if there were eggs then hopefully that is where they would be most likely to hatch.
Thinking she might want pollen, I put some flowers in the box, too, but she didn’t show any interest. I saw one suggestion to put water-soaked cotton balls in the box, in case the butterfly was thirsty. She didn’t seem to want the water, either. Her box looked severe and unpleasant.
I learned from Google that butterfly wings don’t regenerate. This butterfly would never be able to fly. The only consolation was that the internet told me that butterflies don’t have nerve endings in their wings. They don’t feel pain when the wings are harmed. They might not feel pain at all.
I put the butterfly in her box in the bathroom and shut the door, so the cats wouldn’t get her. I went to Target to see if they had an insect habitat I could put her in, instead of the box. They did not. I placed an order on Amazon, and picked up some mesh laundry baskets, figuring they could do in the meantime. I had no idea how long this butterfly would be with me. It seemed excessive to buy so much stuff but cruel not to.
My field is animal welfare. Someone in my world might have ideas of how to take care of this butterfly. I posted to Facebook, asking for help.
A wildlife rehabber said she wasn’t aware of anyone who took care of sick or injured butterflies. But a woman who specializes in skunk rescue told me she knew of a local veterinarian who’d helped repair another butterfly’s wings a few years ago. I called the veterinary hospital. The woman who answered the phone said she’d been there when the other butterfly’s wing was repaired. But in that case, the person who found the butterfly had the piece of ripped off wing, and the vet was able to reattach it. I didn’t have the piece of ripped off wing.
I got suggestions about what food to give the butterfly — sliced up fruit, especially watermelon, since they would keep the butterfly fed and hydrated. We didn’t have any watermelon. I cut up some grapes and oranges and put them in the box. She seemed indifferent to them.
I locked the butterfly in the bathroom that night, again to keep the cats away. I went to bed not knowing if she’d be alive in the morning — or if I was even doing the right thing. Maybe it would have been better to let her die outside, in the sunshine and fresh air. Not trapped in a laundry basket in the bathroom. I kept imagining the headline of this story: Well-Meaning Weirdo Imprisons Sick Butterfly In Misguided Rescue Effort.
The next morning, the butterfly was still alive. I named her Mona, without actually knowing if she was male or female. I’d only guessed about her laying eggs. I gave her more grapes and oranges. This time she sat on them and unrolled something from her mouth that I learned is called a proboscis, an organ which functions as a sort of built-in straw. I took a picture and posted it to Facebook. People seemed delighted by Mona. I felt delighted by Mona. I was thrilled she’d made it through the night. So were her new online fans. People were enthusiastic about Mona’s survival.
Mona’s habitat arrived from Amazon in the afternoon. It was a light and airy mesh cube. Much better than the box.
I put fresh flowers in the habitat, and more fruit. While I worked I kept her on my desk, which is beside some big windows, which I opened so she’d have light and air. Mona climbed her new habitat’s walls and clung to the side closest to the windows. I had no way to gauge if she was happy or satisfied with this situation, but maybe.
I sent my husband out to pick up watermelon. When he saw me cut it up and put it in Mona’s habitat he said, “I thought it was for you,” as if I’d tricked him. My husband is a wonderful man but not always quite as eager to engage with the natural world, especially when presented in the form of an injured insect.
“I don’t understand why you have me kill cockroaches but you want to save the butterfly,” my husband said to me. I couldn’t give him a logical explanation. It was a purely emotional thing. I don’t know why I felt this need to care for Mona. I just know I felt it. (I also feel it’s irrational to be afraid of cockroaches. They aren’t harming me. I don’t have any logical reason to fear them, or order them killed. I’m not totally consistent. I’m working on it.)
“She needs me,” I told my husband. Caring for Mona felt almost like a religious impulse. Anyway, life is full of practical compromises against principal. I had to kill an ant in Mona’s enclosure, in fact. It was too small to pick up and move and she was too injured to escape it if it tried to eat her. What else could I do?
Mona survived another night, in her habitat up on a kitchen counter away from the cats. She was very still in the morning, but alive. I posted more photos of her with her fruit and her flowers to social media. Many people shared in my thrill of her continued existence (or at least said they did). I walked to our local nursery and bought more milkweed, in case she had more eggs to lay, and a small potted plant with lots of flowers on it, so that she would feel like she was outside where she belonged. I put both plants in her habitat but she didn’t seem to be interested in them and they took up a lot of room so I took them out again. I did a lot of internet searches to find out if butterflies have emotions like happiness, or if they make friends. Google didn’t have a lot of answers.
A friend told me she’d once taken in an injured butterfly, and brought the butterfly outside sometimes for some sunshine and air. I tried that with Mona. Outside, on my hand, she fully extended her wings — the whole one, and the half — and beat them softly, though of course I had no way to know if this indicated contentment or something else. It seemed like one of her front legs might also be injured, I noticed for the first time, but I couldn’t quite tell. Maybe it wasn’t.
I looked closely at Mona’s face, trying to really see her. I’ve looked at many monarch butterflies’ wings in flight, but not up close at their bodies or their faces. Her body was soft as if covered in down, black with white spots, and some orange smudges that looked like pollen — though when I petted her body, delicately and ready to stop if she seemed not to want me doing it, the orange didn’t wipe off. Her head was small and oblong with two long, cute antennae with bent tips. I could swear she tilted her head as if she was taking it all in with those enormous (comparatively) eyes, observing me, but I was probably wrong.
Google said butterflies have complex eyes and can see UV light, unlike humans. They have hearts that are as long as their body, and brains. You can tell the males from the females by looking at their wings. Males have a spot on their wings, where the females do not. Mona did not have the spot. I’d been right to call Mona “she.”
Her feet were covered in little spikes that help her stick to things, and they felt pleasantly prickly on my skin. I googled, “Do butterflies like people?” The results there were unsatisfactory. One sweet video about a student who was followed around by a butterfly for a time, but no science or data I could hang my hat on.
Someone I know on Twitter suggested I reach out to an entomologist named Michael Raupp at the University of Maryland. I sent him an email with the subject line: “Strange butterfly question.” I described the situation, showed him photos of Mona’s habitat, and explained that I was concerned Mona would be unhappy living inside with me.
“Is there anything else I should be doing to keep her alive and comfortable?” I asked. “Is it cruel to keep her inside of a habitat like this — is it better to put her back outside, where at least she’ll have fresh air before getting eaten?”
Professor Raupp responded with reassuring words:
“Hi Arin, patron saint of monarchs. What you have done is fine. Enjoy her while she lasts in your habitat. There is plenty of fresh air for her in your home. When she passes, please put her body outside in a nice spot where her remains will reenter the food web of life. You are very thoughtful. Thanks for caring for bugs. Cheers! Mike”
Mona lived that day, too. She lived through the next night. She seemed slow and creaky again in the morning. I posted photos to Facebook with the text: “Maybe she’s not a morning person.” Mona’s online fans greeted her anew. I gave Mona more fruit for sustenance, and fresh flowers because they looked nice. I took her outside again.
In my time with Mona, she’d never seemed especially concerned about food. I’d learned by then that butterflies taste food with their feet, and in captivity it’s sometimes necessary to place them on the food you want them to eat. Then, if they don’t extend their proboscis on their own, you can force it out by unfurling it with a toothpick or paperclip. I decided I would put her on the fruit but wasn’t going to unfurl the proboscis using any tools. If Mona didn’t want to eat, I wouldn’t make her. I’d grown very attached to this butterfly in just three days, but she had so little freedom to make decisions for herself. If she didn’t want this life I wasn’t going to insist.
At lunchtime, while I was on a work conference call, I gave Mona more cut grapes and watermelon. Mona climbed on them and voluntarily ate. I thought she seemed to be doing well. The cats circled her enclosure, also intrigued by the visitor, but in a less benevolent way. I shooed them away from her.
Not long after lunch I saw Mona seemed to be struggling, more than before. She kept trying to climb the wall of her habitat, and kept falling. It seemed harder and harder for her to get back up. Her legs did not appear to be working very well. Whatever little I know about butterflies, it was clear that Mona was dying.
The afternoon sun was strong. I picked Mona up and took her outside, so that she would feel the warmth and the wind. I hoped she was ok in my hands. Maybe she would have been happier if I’d kept her in her habitat. I just didn’t know what was going on inside her little head. I was trying my best. She hung on a little while, then was still.
After Mona died, I put her in my yard, as Professor Raupp suggested, placing her in a pot with a hibiscus plant, and covering her with some flowers. She was near the milkweed patch where I’d put her eggs. It seems dramatic and almost ridiculous to recount, but I cried as I told her lifeless body that she’d done a good job. She’d laid her eggs. She’d made her babies. She’d been an excellent butterfly.
Because this had been a communal effort, I posted the sad update to Facebook. I knew people had grown fond of Mona, but was surprised and moved by the tremendous outpouring of affection and support. Mona’s life had meant something to a lot of people.
The internet tells me that monarch butterflies have very short lifespans. Just a few weeks. It could be that this would have been Mona’s natural end, even had she not been injured — even had she not been relying on my amateur efforts to keep her alive.
I know in the scheme of things that giving hospice care to a dying butterfly is of no real significance. It doesn’t reduce the likelihood that the United States is heading toward war or a constitutional crisis, or that we are losing our reproductive rights at the hands of those who read The Handmaid’s Tale as a how-to guide. This won’t stop children being locked away in detention centers. It doesn’t even do anything to protect the 1 million-some plant and animal species facing extinction.
There’s every chance that it won’t even have helped a new generation of monarch butterflies to come into being. I have no idea if Mona actually laid eggs, and if so if those eggs will hatch, and so on. I just don’t know. I don’t know much.
I don’t even know if I did Mona any good, keeping her inside in a mesh habitat, feeding her watermelon for three days instead of letting her be eaten by birds out on my front path.
But I can say for sure that this strangely emotional journey did something for me. With so much uncertainty in this world — so much dread and fear, so much horror and trauma — sharing communal empathy for a dying butterfly felt like a lot. It was hopeless from the start but it gave me hope.
Arin Greenwood is a writer, animal advocate, and former lawyer living in St. Petersburg, Florida, with her husband Ray and their four rescue pets (Murray the dog, and cats Elf, Jack, and Chappy — they are all really cute). Arin’s novel Your Robot Dog Will Die was published by Soho Teen in 2018. Find her on Facebook and Twitter — get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you enjoyed reading this, you might enjoy Suzannah Gail Collins’s “How I Was Seduced by Monarchs.”