Friday, June 06, 2014

The Tale of Sleepy

Matthew with Sleepy, before the release

A few weeks ago, Matthew found and adopted a gypsy moth caterpillar. To say that I was not thrilled with his choice of species would be an understatement. I have a deep, shuddering hatred of this particular creepy-crawly, rooted in my love of oak trees and the memory of the nastiest chore of my farm-girl days.* However, Matthew lovingly built a little home for "Sleepy" in one of my disposable food-storage containers, and when he wanted to bring it inside and install it in his bedroom as a temporary pet, I acquiesced.

The neighborhood kids had been playing with several of these caterpillars on the day when my son was smitten. Matthew, observing the lot of them, noticed that his particular caterpillar seemed sluggish compared with the others--hence his somnolent name. Coincidentally, I had just read or heard something about how caterpillars stop eating and slow down when they are about ready to build their cocoons. Sure enough, within two days of Sleepy's adoption, the caterpillar had disappeared into a shiny, white cylinder. Matthew proudly showed off his transfigured friend to the neighbors; their caterpillars hadn't yet started cocooning. There were many oohs and ahhs.

Days went by, then weeks. Every now and then, when I was in the boys' room, I glanced at Sleepy's home on the top shelf and wondered what would become of him. One time a few days ago, I even picked the container up and squinted through the plastic, trying to see if there was any sign of life.

Today at lunch time, Matthew came to me with an anxious face. "Mommy, Sleepy moved."

"Well," I replied, "I picked his home up a couple of days ago. Maybe I accidentally moved him."

"His cocoon moved, and there's a brown triangle thing in there," Matthew said, still worried.

"Uhh, Buddy, I think the brown thing is Sleepy. He's turned into a gypsy moth."

"Oh," Matthew replied, his face clearing. He ran to get Sleepy's container. There he was, the long, slender, hairy, black caterpillar, mysteriously transformed into a stubby, white-bodied moth with beige wings. I nudged him with one of the leaves in his home. He responded by flickering his antennae. Still sleepy. Or... hmmm.

"Matthew, I'm not sure if he's going to make it. There might be something wrong."


To condense the rest of the story: we took Sleepy outside into the beautiful, mild June sunshine and tried setting him free. And Sleepy flapped his wings like crazy and buzzed and whirred and went like 60 in circles on our front stoop. But he couldn't get off the ground. I don't know what was wrong with him, but it was fairly obvious that our moth was never going to be able to make it to a tree that would provide sustenance for him. So I tried to encourage Matthew with the reality that, at best, Sleepy would only have lived until the end of the summer, and I told him to set his pet free in the grass. He did it. Then he came inside and was sad for a while, which made my Mama-heart sad, even though I can't help rejoice over one less gypsy moth on the planet.

And that's the short, unhappy tale of Sleepy the gypsy moth, our first (and only) family pet.

* Growing up on a farm with beautiful, old, oak woods, we considered gypsy moths to be more than pests. I remember my parents pointing out to me trees that had been ravaged by those buggers, and even to young eyes, the damage was apparent. Dying, 50-foot oaks surrounding your home are something no one really wants, even if you're not an inherent tree-lover, as my family certainly was. To combat the gypsy moths, we "skirted" our oak trees, tying a strip of burlap around each trunk. The gypsy moths, crawling up the trunks on their way to wreak destruction, would get trapped in the burlap skirts, and then we would come around every morning to gather them up and end their lives. We used two different methods to do this, neither of them very humane: one was to pluck them off the trees and drop them in a jar of turpentine, the other (my mom's preferred method) was to simply snip them in half with a pair of scissors. Take it from one who knows: gypsy moths squirt green juice when you snip them in half. And this was how we started our summer mornings on the farm! Any questions on why I hate and detest gypsy moths?

Except Sleepy. For Matthew's sake. RIP, Sleepy.

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