A Black Swallowtail named “Blue”

I was outside working in the yard one day when i noticed a pop of color underneath the car. It was a butterfly! I was immediately terrified i’d run him over or hit him with the grill of the car earlier when i’d parked, since that was where i found him, beneath the front of the car. He was laying in the dirt. Ants were gathering around him. He was kind of crawling on his side. I say he but i have no idea what gender the butterfly was. His wings were fully intact and beautiful. I knew that older butterflies sported dull colored wings and his were bright and vibrantly patterned, so he was not an elderly butterfly. I was careful not to touch his wings as the oils from my hands would make it so he could never fly again. Instead, i offered my finger to his sideways splayed legs and the butterfly grabbed on. His legs held me tightly and curved to grip my finger as i lifted him off the ground and over the porch. I was surprised he didnt let go the whole way to the house as his wings hung draped to the side. I laid him on a wooden chair on the porch. It was only then that i realized the extent to which he was infested with ants. I had to get them off of him. I also couldnt touch him or he’d never be able to fly again. All i could think of was water. I said to the butterfly, “Hold on, i’ve got to get these ants off you. I have an idea. Hold on here. I’ll be right back.” I filled a cup with well water and returned to the chair on the porch where these horrible ants were seemingly killing the butterfly. I poured the water over the butterfly and the ants floated out from underneath him, then climbed right back on. I had to really flood the spot where the butterfly lay struggling to wash all the ants out from under him. A few were seemingly inside his body cavity. I didn’t understand where they had come from. Once the ants were flushed out they began tracing their scent trail back to the butterfly so i smooshed them all with the edge of the cup or my fingers. I decided to look up what kind of butterfly i had as a guest on my porch and name it. I had to have something to call this new visitor in crisis. The butterfly turned out to be a black swallowtail which i named “Blue” for the brilliant pop of color on his wings. Blue flapped around in circles while laying sideways and wiggling his legs.

After around fifteen minutes of this it became apparent to me that Blue was not going to make a miraculous recovery once rid of the ants and fly away. Blue was hurt in some way. I first examined Blue’s abdomen, as it was where i had seen two ants crawl out of. I could see strings of orange goo on Blue’s legs and hanging from his abdomen. I wasn’t sure what to make of his condition. His wings were so bright and colorful, perfectly intact, not a scratch or a tatter anywhere on them. And yet he was clearly injured in some way. As Blue twirled around on his side i got a good look at his underside and realized it was hollowed out. Something had seemingly taken his guts out and now his abdomen was shriveled and hollow save for the strings of orange goo he was dragging around. I was unsure whether these were his guts or whether this was a poisonous substance secreted by a predatory animal that had victimized this butterfly. To my dismay the ants continued to follow their scent trails and find him. I doused him with more water. He seemed to welcome the water as it meant the ants were floating away and his legs relaxed each time the water flowed over him in a little wave. I then got a better look at Blue’s face. His head was half caved in. One eye was cracked open and the other intact but cloudy. It seemed something had crushed one side of his face. I realized that he couldn’t see. His little spiral curl tongue was in its resting position. I could see every little individual hair that collectively made his head and torso appear fuzzy. I had never seen a butterfly up close before. I sat and googled all the parasites and predatory animals that could cause a butterfly this kind of damage. I ruled out dragonflies, snakes, mice, praying mantises, birds, and lizards. The praying mantis would have eaten the head only and the rest of the aforementioned animals would have swallowed Blue whole. I had to focus on animals that would be more likely to eat Blue in pieces or just poison him and then leave him to the mercy of some opportunistic ants. I knew from my eyeballs that ants were an enemy of butterflies but it seemed unlikely that they themselves would have smashed Blue’s head open and crushed his eye. I felt the ants must have a similar relationship to butterflies as vultures have to deer. Wasps and spiders were both possible suspects. I did wonder if ants were capable of bringing down a butterfly or just scavenging someone else’s kill. The problem was that Blue was not dead. He was alive and the ants were carrying away pieces of his abdomen as he struggled to crawl around on his side. Blue was clearly broken. I decided to sit with him while he died. I kept the ants off of him and spoke softly to him about how wonderful and peaceful he would find heaven and that it was all going to be okay once he got where he was going and i would be here with him until he let go and made the journey. I continued to research what could hollow out a butterfly’s abdomen out of insatiable curiosity and a willingness to understand as i sat with him next to the chair on the porch, standing guard against the ants. Then google stated that butterflies could live without their abdomens. I took the phone into the house briefly to see the screen better and read the full article. The title was a bit misleading. Butterflies could live without their abdomen for a number of hours before inevitable death set in. My hopes dropped and i returned to the porch to sit with Blue. As time ticked on Blue remained alive and struggling around in circles on his side. Sometimes he would lie still but his legs would move. One common thread through all my research was that butterflies couldn’t feel pain. Every article stated that scientists had found no pain receptors in butterflies’ brains and so therefore they could not perceive pain. One article stated that butterflies could feel sensation and knew when something was touching them but since they had no pain receptors they could not know the sensation of pain. I sat with Blue for a long time. I watched his stiff legs shake and twitch. Every limb was extended and stiff in the air. He pulled a leg in towards him or tremored a bit from time to time. His movements appeared labored and strained. When his legs shook he reminded me of myself trying to deal with the pain of pcos before ultimately vomiting, passing out, and going to the ER for help with pain management. When your insides are in such a tremendous amount of pain and theres nothing you can do to get at it the natural reaction is to tense all your muscles and writhe. That was what i was watching Blue do.

Occasionally i was not quick enough to thwart the ants and they would crawl on him. While they were crawling on him he would remain stiff and his movements were slow and labored. When the ants crawled inside his abdomen and began tearing off chunks of him to take back to their nest Blue began to writhe uncontrollably, moving his little legs quickly and shaking at times. He appeared frantic. As soon as i got the ants out of him the movements became slower and more labored. I could use science to explain this and say the ants had found some muscle control center and were operating the butterfly’s legs from within the abdomen but even before the ants would tear off a chunk of him, he responded differently when the ants were just traveling over him than he did when the ants had climbed into his wound. The slow, labored, jerky movements and occasional tremor turned to quick frantic movements where his legs grasped at anything within reach and they flailed about rapidly as if to signal panic or crisis. Every time i removed the ants with water Blue’s legs relaxed and he flapped his wings once or twice while lying on his side.

The internet told me, “Don’t worry, your butterfly does not feel pain. Butterflies are incapable of perceiving pain.” I sat and watched Blue. It seemed pretty clear to me that the insect was suffering. His legs shook and tremored, extended and held their position for a moment before shaking or retracting and extending again. The ants were gone. So what was causing the strained movements of his legs now if not pain? I wondered how scientists could be so sure that there was an animal without any semblance of the survival warning system we knew as pain. What made them think butterflies could not perceive pain? Well, they found no pain receptors in butterflies’ brains when they cut them open. Are we sure we know where they are located in insects? Are we sure that the system is even anywhere similar to human anatomy? Maybe butterflies had some other way of perceiving and processing pain, not brain receptors. I was not a scientist and i tended to draw conclusions through observation of body language and behavior, not images on a slide. I put my face close to Blue’s and stared into his one crushed and remaining cloudy eye. I stared at his shriveled hollowed out abdomen. The movements of his legs reminded me so much of mine when i couldn’t any longer cope with the pain of pcos. They were tensed at all times and tremored and retracted during some moments. It became apparent to me at this point that Blue would be with me for hours before his passing. This was going to be an all day event. I knew what the internet said but in my heart i felt it was wrong. My eyeballs and instincts told me i was looking at an animal who was suffering, despite article after article telling me that Butterflies don’t perceive pain. I wondered why humans believed God would make only one animal without the ability to feel pain. I felt butterflies could perceive pain, we just didn’t understand how and so we vetoed the existence of the whole thing.

After watching Blue suffer for an hour i read that if i wanted to put a dying butterfly out of its non-existent misery i could place him in a ziploc bag and set him in the freezer. He would first feel cold, then warm, then drift to sleep and not wake up. I felt this was a kinder end for Blue than struggling all day on the chair while the ants continued to find him and rip chunks from his abdomen. I told him my plan. I spoke to Blue that it seemed his abdomen was missing and his face was smashed and he would not be making a recovery from this. I told him that the internet said he would feel cold and then warm and then drift off to sleep…take a nap that he wouldn’t wake up from, and then he would be with God in heaven. Blue did not seem afraid of me in the slightest. He never tried to crawl away from me and any time i gave him my finger he latched on with his legs and did not let go until i put him down at the destination. Blue trusted me. I sought to end his misery when i realized i couldn’t help him get back up on his feet. I brought out a little plastic sandwich bag and opened it, placing it next to his body. I looked for a stick to nudge him in with but there was no need. Blue climbed into the little baggy before my eyes. I wanted him to die of hypothermia, not suffocation, which is a very different and more cruel experience. So i made sure to trap a bubble of air in there with him. I told him not to worry, that he would be with God soon and relief was coming. I placed the baggy in the freezer. I looked in once as Blue was drifting into his eternal nap. I said goodbye. Then i closed the freezer again and Blue was frozen the next time i opened it. Blue was finally still. His body looked relaxed, peaceful…resting. His legs laid flat. I thought about the body language of the butterfly. It would have been read as agony in any other species. Why was i to believe it was not so in butterflies? I realize i am wrong in the eyes of science but i know what i saw. A butterfly in any other situation has a healthy fear of humans. You lower your standards to accept help from anyone that is willing to give in extremely painful situations, when you are desperate and weak and cannot manage to cope much longer. He let me transport him. He held on so tightly to my finger with his little legs and it wasnt an unconscious reflex because he let go when i placed him on the porch or on the chair. Throw me in jail if you must, i will believe to my dying day that all animals have the ability to perceive pain. It is a warning system to increase likelihood of survival. Why would God bestow some animals with this and not others? Is it not useful to everybody? My eyeballs tell me an animal is writhing and if it is writhing would it not be writhing for the same reason that the rest of us do (dogs, snakes, elephants, cats, fish, monkeys, scorpions), the perception of pain? I have watched many an insect battle out here and there is nothing you can say to me to convince me that animals with different anatomy feel no pain because they are not constructed in the way that we see humans are when we cut them open. I feel pain. Blue feels pain.

I said a prayer while Blue was dying in the freezer. I asked God to forgive me for killing one of his children and i asked that he receive Blue with open arms, end his suffering, and welcome him into an eternity of peace. While i was sitting outside the freezer keeping Blue company i realized why i could never drag a deer corpse off the highway. I had touched dozens of deceased people working in the nursing homes both in holding their hands while they passed and cleaning them up for their families to come in and see them one last time before they went to the morgue. Some families prefer to do this for closure and when they request we close the door and leave them in there until they can drive up to see them we first clean and bathe the body, brush their hair, dress them, and place new linens on the bed so they will look their best for their family to view them. This does not terrify me in the slightest but touching a corpse of a deer on the road, i have never been able to do. I finally realized why. I viewed myself as an animal more than a human. Butterflies, cotton tails, deer…they all seemed like my species to me. Humans i understood much less inherently. Humans were not my people. And so when one died it was easier for me to tend to them with empathy because this was just another part of the job. Their death did not strike fear into my heart. But animals i identified with more than humans. I saw myself in their behaviors. When i see a deer dead on the road i think i see myself in that corpse more than a human who has passed on. As strange as it sounds, this registers as a corpse to me while the other one is a somber series of steps that need to be completed with respect and care for the sake of the soul that once occupied the body, the personality you had come to know and will miss, and for the sake of the family members who will be devastated by the loss. I should mention that this in no way means i don’t feel sadness when a human i have cared for over years dies. It simply means i don’t see myself in them. I mourn humans and animals alike when they leave. Its just, something additional is happening when i look at deceased animals. There is a personal fear that i have not yet overcome when i realize… “some day, that will be me.” I think my brain expects to die in the woods where the vultures will peck my eyes out and the coyotes will do what they do, instead of in a bed in a gown where an embalmer will take me apart and put me back together. Ideally, i will die in the woods. I don’t want to die in a building. I want to be an animal just like the deer and the cottontails. I want to go back to the earth when it’s my time.

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