I stepped outside to give Larenti some attention and to enjoy the cool darkness of the as yet unfamiliar early dusk. The patio felt stark, barren, a windless, lightless place, a landscape where even the stars forsake humans despite their valiant struggle to penetrate Dallas’ unforgiving light polution. Were it not for Larenti’s presence, the night’s chill would have been my only companion.
But we were not alone.
As the sweet feline scampered about my feet stretching and purring, reaching for every bit of affection she could absorb, she suddenly leaped as her eyes rested on a large, dark moving mass crawling beneath her. She nearly stepped on it before she saw it, and when she saw it. . . Well, let’s just say it took her by surprise as much as it did me.
She took a few steps to avoid the monster, shook off the initial surprise, then leaned over to sniff it, investigate it, give it the once over it deserved for invading our time.
Then she turned her back on it. Obviously nothing worthy of more than a first glance.
I felt otherwise.
I could see plainly that it was a caterpillar of some kind, a large one, a dark one moving with unalterable intent toward the living room doors. I also knew better than to assume it benign.
Furry caterpillars can be dangerous. It’s always safe to assume they are until/unless you know otherwise.
So I opened the bedroom door, turned on the patio light, and turned my attention back to the interloper.
Aha! I immediately recognized the tiny giant as a leopard cub (or so I like to call them), the child of giant leopard moths (a.k.a. eyed tiger moths or great leopard moths; Hypercompe scribonia). You might remember them from here and here.
Such creatures are harmless, their only defense to curl into a ball, show their red stripes, and hope for the best.
So I reached down, intercepted the miniature leviathan, picked it up, and carried it inside. It remained motionless throughout the journey, a small, black and red-striped furry monster held with powerful care in the palm of my hand.
If my last experience offered any insight, these are very patient creatures. The last such caterpillar didn’t move for thirty minutes once wrapped in its bristly ball. Yet I can be quite the patient ape when I want to be.
I therefore put the visitor down on a piece of paper on the desk, something white upon which its shadowy figure might be perceived, and I waited.
And waited some more.
My amazement at the patience of these insects grew as I watched it.
Then finally, like a flower opening petal by petal in the day’s early light, it began to move. Almost twenty minutes later.
I let the child walk about the desk a bit to gain some comfort in the alien surroundings, after which I placed my hands in its path hoping to intercept it.
After the briefest pause while it investigated my fingers, the little thing crawled right up on my hand and continued its search. . .for an exit, for a place to hibernate, for something.
I can’t tell you how many photos I snapped while it investigated me from stem to stern. It crawled from hand to hand, arm to arm, and all the way across my chest from shoulder to shoulder.
My only concern is that many of the photos will be little more than garbage. I have no idea what I was aiming at while snapping photograph after photograph. All I know is that I did my best to grab an image or two of the stranger in our midst.
Not wanting to torture the little beast any more than necessary, I finally put the camera aside. The time had come to set the cub free.
After pulling it from my sweatshirt like so much lint, I placed the ball of hair in my hand and carried it outside. And just as I had done before, I took special care to lay it down well outside the patio fence, sheltered by darkness and flora and hope.
I can’t tell you where it is or where it went. I do know I’m stepping carefully when I go outside, looking intently for any movement before placing my weight on the ground.
Meanwhile, I’m going through an unbelievable number of photos hoping to find one or two I can share here as I simultaneously hope the child finds a place to hibernate for the winter. When spring arrives next year, should it survive, this large black caterpillar will feast again, even if for a short while, and then it will cocoon in time to metamorphose into an impressive leopard moth whose size and coloration will dazzle and intrigue all who see it.
Or at least those who aren’t calloused about such things.