Written By: Kristin Houdyshell
A few weeks ago, there were caterpillars raining down on the University of South Florida campus. I remember seeing the caterpillars last spring and when I saw them again I thought “Oh hey! I remember you! Yea, it’s spring.”
They seemed to flood the campus over night and were hanging from trees, scattering the floors, and inching up the walls. When walking to class, I tried to be conscientious of the caterpillars and tried not to step on them. Other than being mindful of the little insects, I didn’t give their presence much thought and didn’t see them being there as much of a concern.
However, a few days later, during my chemistry Peer-Leading course, some of the other students started talking to each other about the caterpillars. They said something like this:
Student 1: “What’s with those caterpillars? They’re everywhere! I’m worried I’m going to step on them.”
Student 2: “Yea. They’re really annoying and I think they’re poisonous.”
Student 3: “Yea. My mom said they’re poisonous and they make you break out in a rash or something.”
Student 1: “Oh. Ok. Then I guess it’s ok if I step on them.” (Laughing)
Student 3: “Yea. And I don’t even think they turn into butterflies. I think they turn into moths or something. So it’s not even like they’re pretty.”
Student 1” “What a waist.”
After listening to the student’s conversations I felt disgusted that they felt the need to exploit the caterpillars in order to feel better (or just not feel bad) for stepping on them. When reflecting on what the students said and how they reacted to the caterpillars, I was reminded of Marie Houser’s article, Grace for a Cure: Poisoned Ethics on Disabled-Nonhuman Images. Houser notes that human seem to need to feel pity for an animal or give them a ‘story of overcoming’ in order to have any remorse for them and to see them as living beings. This also gives people a scape-goat for their actions— where they turn their attention to how the animal is ‘cute,’ ‘overcoming an obstacle,’ or ‘ brave,’ rather than recognize that their actions are the reason the animal is suffering in the first place. Additionally, Houser notes that people seem to need to exploit an animal for how they might harm others or be ‘useless’ to people in order to justify our actions— such as how the students felt the need to say the caterpillars are poisonous and won’t turn into pretty butterflies anyways, for it to be ‘ok’ if they accidentally step on them.
Additionally, in Animal Crips, an excerpt by Sunaura Taylor, she tells the story of a fox with Arthrogryposis— a physical disability that Taylor also has. In her story, the fox was seen by a hunter as having an abnormality and didn’t appear to look ‘healthy’ (or rather, normal?), so he shot the fox. The hunter killed the fox as though it was a kind act or a ‘mercy killing.’ Taylor calls attention to the hunter’s quick judgments and prejudices about the fox and its disability— although the fox was doing completely fine on its own. Taylor further notes that the concept of a ‘mercy killing’ highlights the need to destroy but also pity a disability or abnormality. Similar to the students in my peer-leading course, the hunter had to first exploit the fox as having a disability or something ‘wrong’ with it, in order to justify killing it. Additionally, the students in my course seemed to feel the need to point out the caterpillars as being poisonous (although they didn’t know how they were harmful and to whom, simply that they were poisonous) in order to feel ok about killing them and labeling them as ‘harmful’ or ‘pests.’
After reading Houser’s and Taylors articles, I felt disgusted at the student’s need to exploit the little insects and say ‘its ok’ to kill them. The students seemed so casual about how they were talking about the life of another animal and didn’t give it much thought that the caterpillars were living beings— or if they did (for a moment) they quickly tried to rationalize why it was ok to not care.
For a moment I thought “then is it ok that I accidentally stepped on a few? There are so many anyways… Would it be ok if only a few were squished? I still see some that are alive.” However, I then found it a bit odd that I had to try to justify why it was ok to kill something else. This made me recognize that people seem to try to justify their actions (such as killings) by finding a flaw in the other thing.
Taylor also notes, in Animal Crips, that slaughterhouse animals are sometimes bred to have a physical deformity— such as chickens with a stunted beak or cows with painfully large utters— to then make their slaughter more of a ‘mercy killing.’ Additionally, slaughterhouses frame the mass of animals as ‘pests’ to better view their slaughter as eradication. This was also evident in the case of the caterpillars on campus. Eventually, as another student told me, USF pest control came and killed bunches of the caterpillars and their cocoons. This made me feel a bit uncomfortable thinking there would resultantly be dead caterpillar bodies and lifeless cocoons around building entrances…
I feel as though the quick exploitation and then murder of the caterpillars, simply because they might be annoying or possibly poisonous (although I don’t recall any instances where a student or staff was harmed by the insects), is a bit odd seeing as how they didn’t do any harm. It seems as though it would have been less of a hassle if pest control DIDN’T come and slaughter bunches of the insects, but rather let them do what they want and eventually fly off— as a butterfly OR a moth.
It seemed a bit extreme and heartless that the students needed to emphasize that the caterpillars won’t even turn into pretty butterflies, so it was ‘ok’ if they stepped on them. I think it’s a bit odd that they’re being so casual about the killing of another animal and their justification is simply that it’s not ‘pretty.’
Houser, M.A. (2014) Grace for a Cure: Poisoned Ethics and Disabled-Nonhuman Images. Journal for Critical Animal Studies. 12(2). 17-37.
Taylor, S. (2014). Beasts of Burden: Animal Crips. Journal for Critical Animal Studies. 12(2). 95-117.