This is the summary of Gimpy's Life, our very special needs butterfly that was born with only portions of a few feet (not enough to walk right), and non fully functional wings, and lost the round part of one antenna for reasons unknown, not long after emerging from his chrysalis. We didn't know its sex, but we called him gimpy.
We poured our hearts into helping this little bugger survive: we built him little houses where he could enjoy a few flowers, hopefully feed without falling in his food and getting too sticky (that happened several times and tried out best to remove all the sugar glue each time). We tried to help him achieve the best butterfly life that was possible for him.
In the end, he survived 9 days out of 14 or so (expected lifetime), but it was a not an easy life: he was unable to feed himself, so we had to extend his proboscis in food and he was able to slurp then. By the 8th day he probably stopped being able or willing to eat and by the 9th day (July 4th), he would not slurp food or water when we gave him some, so he ended up dying of exhaustion, hunger, or thirst while we tried our best to help him (doing so, was difficult the last few days as he started getting more scared of us, so we were not able to help it feed as much, and we weren't able to check on him as carefully).
1.5 years ago, I got Jennifer a butterfly kit from her birthday from insectlore. You can read about our first experience taking care of caterpilars here. At the time, I should have found their FAQ, which would have made it clear that getting butterflies in november, was not the best idea. We hope they survived after we released them, but the temperatures were borderline.
What they don't warn you about, though, is that you're likely to have to make life and death decisions, and they don't equip you much for them. We only found out later that outside of crushing a dying butterfly, you can also put it in the freezer and it will go to sleep in less than a minute.
The first time, one butterfly came out wrong and was totally mangled. It looked that in his struggle to get out, it also severed body parts and was bleeding. At the time, it was pretty simple (even if not easy), to crush the poor thing so that it didn't have to keep suffering while bleeding to death:
poor thing, you can barely tell that it was supposed to be a butterfly
This time, I got a kit for Jennifer in June, a better time of the year. One caterpillar died in his Chrysalis, 8 of them turned into happy butterflies that we released in our yard. And last one was gimpy. Gimpy had issues getting unstuck when he got out, and after I saw him struggle, I helped him out. Unfortunately in the process, he seemed to have lost portions of his legs that were just too stuck to get out (yes, had I been prepared with the right surgical tools, I might have been able to help better, but either way gimpy didn't have proper control of his wings):
Gimpy looked almost ok, except that butterflies leave their wings closed by default, gimpy could not close them
soon, it was also clear that while he could control both wings, it was not in a balanced way (flight would not be possible)
We left gimpy with the other butterflies in the habitat for the first day (they don't all come out at the same time), but unfortunately we had no idea he couldn't actually feed on his own. As we found out later, he could not really go somewhere on purpose, nor could he extend his proboscis on his own to feed:
Gimpy, Day 2
By the 2nd day, the last butterflies had emerged, so we let them free in our yard, and it was clear that gimpy as not going to be able to live on his own:
we gave him a bit of sun and showed him outside
it was clear that he was not really able to get around though, or even feed, also by then he somehow had lost tip of his right antenna
we finally figured out that we had to manually unroll/extend his proboscis into the food, and this was likely the first time the poor little thing got to eat
jennifer made different foods for him, but his partial legs were so short that it was difficult for him to reach
so she found ways to prop it up
We were worried when we found out that he didn't have full control of his proboscis, the straw that bufferflies can unroll to feed. It could eat through it if we put it in food, and he could move it just a bit, but he did not seem able to unroll it and place it in food on his own. That made it difficult to know if he was hungry as we also found out he would make small motions with his proboscis rolled in the air, and that didn't have to mean it was hungry (actually it was Jennifer's sharp eye that noticed that what looked like a small antenna on the side of its head was actually the proboscis moving, and maybe trying to suck food out of the air).
You can see in this clip that he can move a bit, and his proboscis is curled on the left of the head, moving, but not able to reach any food (unless we put him in there manually). Poor gimpy probably wanted to enjoy that orange, but wasn't able to (we gave him orange juice later):
Gimpy, Day 3-6
we got hime fresh flowers from our yard, even if they died fast. We're hoping he was able to enjoy the smells.
Those were probably Gimpy's best days, despite the challenges due to his infirmities. One problem was that he couldn't walk with purpose given his missing or damaged half legs, and would sometimes end up in the sticky sugar.
Jennifer tried different ways to prop him up to the food
Did I mention how hard Jennifer tried? Here she made him a new little house with recessed floor to fit a cut cup of food
she became a butterfly cook
Jennifer made a mixture of plum and orange from our yard, and sugar water
his sectionned front left leg made it difficult for him to walk, but he did his best
The recessed cup of food that Jennifer had designed was better but gimpy still could fall into it. We also tried another method with a less amount of sticky food (arguably it was still too much in that picture):
he seemed happy being on a flower (when balanced right), and having food brought up (we still had to manually extend the proboscis)
the surface tension of the sugar water was helpful for keeping the proboscis in
You can see gimby eating a bit:
At least twice he even fell upside down (wings first) in the sugary food, so we had to clean him and dry him:
we then helped him dry
We hope he enjoyed the flowers we gave him:
despite his damaged feet, he was able to climb flowers as often as he could, that was exciting
Gimpy, Day 7-8
Unfortunately each time he got scared or excited, he tried to fly and ended up upside down and then couldn't flip back, so we had to help him (actually, during a couple of days he became strong and skilled enough to jump up from upside down and eventually flip back right side up). What upset the poor thing was diverse and hard to know for sure, but the few times that he sensed AC air did not work. Surprisingly putting him in the sun, seemed to upset him too for reasons that are not clear (maybe it was too warm and he couldn't close his wings or regulate temperature).
In this clip Gimpy got upset at the sun and flipped himself over. We soon had to learn that our buttefly just didn't like being in the sun:
To make things harder, we think he eventually got a bit scared of us, as part of what we had to do, to help him, must not always have felt great (like wetting and un-gluing wings stuck with sugar). Obviously at times we must also have done a few things he plain didn't like when we were trying to do our best to help him.
By day 7th, he started flapping his wings and flipping over for more reasons, and it was harder to feed him. Jennifer tried really hard to find solutions, including this new feeder which was a great idea, but did not work out (it was too steep for gimpy who couldn't stand well with its leg stubs):
Jennifer was very observant and noticed that even his broken shorted leg didn't look quite right, and it had gotten glued to the body due to sugar, so she had to help him out. After flipping over out of frustation, Jennifer was able to see the leg stuck to the body's hair, and free it up while Gimpy laid very still.
We didn't know he was turning around like this but eventually Jennifer figured that it was because of the stuck foot:
sorry gimpy, this must have felt uncomfortable, but you really wanted your foot stuck with sugar, to get unstuck
By then poor little thing was looking more beaten up with all the wing flapping, flipping over, one time a wing even got stuck to the cardboard due to sugar and a small corner of the wing was lost:
We tried to find new ways to feed him so that his poor injured feet had a bit of traction and that he wouldn't fall in the food:
Always made sure he had flowers to enjoy:
Unfortunately by mid-day he would get more restless and often looked like he was upset, at us or something else. All we could do was to put a a cover on the box so it got dark to calm him down. This was hard to watch, we were worried that maybe he was in pain or suffering in some way, or maybe he was just upset to see us (ultimately the only communication we got when something was wrong is he would flip over, which is kind of limited). It was upsetting not to know what was wrong and how to help:
So many questions, he didn't seem to be able to move forward much, but was he moving backwards (not a normal thing to do). Was it because it was easier for him to move that way, or because he was afraid of us?
And in the process of all this, he really surprised us by having enough power to hang on to a flower and move it with his wings:
This is where things get sad. Because he seemed scared of us, we gave it more space and didn't try to feed him in the evening when he was more restless and more likely to fall in the food and get all sticky. Because he died 5 days before his expected time, we think he didn't eat when we gave him food in the morning of day 8 (it was easy in the morning as he was still waking up and less likely to be feisty), and we didn't know (he had the proboscis in the food, but we didn't know if he sucked any). He didn't really seem weak during the day, but of course, it's hard to tell for sure.
I put the lid on the box that evening so he didn't get too excited (yes, of course, there was room for air exchange).
Gimpy, Day 9
The next morning, I brought gimpy to his food as he was waking up, and maybe I should have taken a clue that his antenna was dipping in the food.
when I was looking at him, he wasn't doing the suction
Soon after, we found him with one wing arched (maybe due to to dehydration) and the other wing dipped into the food:
Jennifer thought he was dehydrated because his wings we arched, so she misted him and tried to get the sugar out of his wing. In hindsight, we should have tried to give it pure water at that point, even if it was probably already too late:
it was very hard to do, only Jennifer had the eye and precision to do it
By then, we realized that he looked dead. I had already written gimpy off as he hadn't moved at all in a while, but Jennifer said we should take him to the sun, and she was right. We saw a bit of life back in him but it was apparent that he was having his last moments (we wanted him to eat/drink and recover, but that was not to be). We had a small piece of parchment paper between his wings so that they didn't get stuck again:
he wouldn't eat, but he was probably too weak to make the suction to eat by then.
Given his number of infirmities, Jennifer wondered if his proboscis stopped working because it got plugged by sugar or a piece of fruit, but obviously that's kind of hard to check. If it were true somehow, by then it was way too late and Gimpy was too weak to do any suction. Yet, as a last ditch effort, we put his proboscis in water and tried to stimulate it a bit, and Gimpy responded by moving it a few times ever so slightly, but those were clearly his last dying breaths (not that you can see a butterfly breathing):
If you look really really closely, you'll see one of his last signs of life at offset 0:29. We were hopeful he could drink water and perk back up, but it was too far gone unfortunately:
In the end, Gimpy lived 9 days (those butterflies live 14 days on average, so he should have lived a bit longer). It died on the morning of July 4th. In hindsight, it was likely that he didn't feed at all in at least 24H, but it was hard for us to know, because butterflies do not expel waste unless they ate way too much (that happened a couple of times with gimpy when he was eating way too much early on). The other problem was that in the last 3 days, he had gotten what looked like more restless with us, so that he would try to fly and eventually flip upside down when we were too close. As a result, we gave him more space and were not able to observe him as closely (Jennifer before that was checking carefully and knew when he was bigger because he had eaten, or could easily tell when one of his legs or wings got stuck because of sugar).
A bit later, we found that his wings had bent/arched and he hadn't shown any movement in over 30mn, so we said our good-byes. Hopefully his last moments weren't too uncomfortable and we hope we helped him have the best butterfly life that he could in the 9 days that he shared with us.
So, most of you are probably going to at least smile, if not laugh at us, for the amount of time and effort we've spent over those 9 days trying to give this poor little butterfly as good a life as possible. I understand, I probably would have done the same thing too, but given that I'm the one who didn't manage to help him better get unstuck from his cocoon, and probably is at least partially responsible for him missing a leg or two, I've felt responsible for helping the poor little bugger out as much as possible (the wings never fully inflated and the part of antenna missing, is likely another problem that may not be our fault).
We've tried to give it as much of a "proud butterfly life" by showing him outside a few times, first when we released his siblings, including taking him out for lunch with us, until he didn't like the sun and wind. After being back indoors, we make sure he got fruit juice or sugar water, and we moved him around with the sun during the day so that he could enjoy the heat on his wings (he first seems to enjoy that, but soon enough it looked like not, maybe too much of a good thing?). For his last moments, Jennifer also took him back outside to experience the outdoors and the sun one last time.
We learned a lot about butterflies, but we were also left with a lot of questions, including the ones related to his challenges:
We had to learn that he didn't like sun, maybe because he couldn't fold his wings and it was too hot or too drying
There are times, he went backwards, was he scared of us, or was he so unable to walk properly that it was easier to move backwards?
Was he trying to fly just to fly, or was it indeed the only way for him to show that he was upset/scared?
We never found out why he had some control over his proboscis but didn't seem to be able to extend it in food, while being able to use it once it was there
We hope he was able to enjoy the flowers despite missing the part of his feet that can smell, and one part of one antenna
We never were really sure if he liked what we tried to do for him, like getting a floor that's not as tough given that he had to drag his body, but if it was too smooth, he had no grip to move around
More generally we hope he never was in pain or suffering, but it's very possible he had gangrene on his broken legs. Our biggest hope is that the days of life with gave him were worth living and his quality of life was sufficient to make worth it. We also hope we were able to help him achieve the best butterfly life he could have.
Did he die a natural death a few days early, or did he become unable to feed because it had problems with his proboscis (did sugar cause a clog, and we could have gotten gimpy to feed on water after each time it had sugar?) or maybe it did have gangrene and an infection from his half severed feet?
One thing I got a hint of, is how caretakers of people with special needs must feel. We wanted to help gimpy so much, accepted his disabilities, adjusted our hopes and expectations accordingly, and did the best we could to help it. The other butterflies were fun, we released them outside on flowers, they left, and never came back (as expected of course, it's not like they're supposed to be pets). Gimpy had so many problems, but he never gave up: he made us so happy when he succeeded in doing things like climbing a lavender and standing proudly on top, or when we saw him hover while holding and moving the lavender under him. We definitely rooted for him.
Gimpy never gave up, and tried to be the best butterfly it could be despite its physical challenges.
Yes, it would have been a lot easier if he could have fed a few more days and just died peacefully in his sleep, but that wasn't meant to be. Seeing him make his last movements as he died was very hard to watch, but I guess 9 days of life, hopefully at least 6 of them being as good as they could be, is still better than nothing (realistically many people would not have seen him struggle and let him die after birth, or not noticed he wasn't able to feed on his own and let him die of starvation after birth).
Yes, we could have euthanized him if we knew he was not going to make it, but we kept hope that he would surprise us again and pull through. Would you have been ok killing a butterfly that you were not absolutely sure, was already dying?
RIP Gimpy, we hope you'll re-incarnate in a better life, thank you for the teachings you gave us, and sorry for any ways we did not know how to better take care for you (although hopefully we did about as well as anyone could have been reasonably expected to).
After he died, we decided to keep him. I tried to flatten his wings, unstick the ones that were often stuck and pointed wrong, and made him a little home with flowers from our yard:
and him got a home with the other butterflies I inherited from an uncle
(before you ask, I do not support buying butterfly displays, I don't trust that the butterflies died a natural death. That one is over 60 years old and I inherited it from an uncle in France when I was a kid, while I enjoy it, I would never buy one):