On the Wing

The Bronx Zoo has a "Butterfly Zone" this summer. The set-up is a little silly--theyíve built a huge tent in the shape of a caterpillar, complete with spots on the outside. But once you pay your dollar and walk through the double screen doors, itís delightful. The tent encloses a garden full of butterflies. It lets the sunlight in, but keeps birds and other predators out. You can walk past a series of displays, and learn about butterfly diets, caterpillars, and metamorphosis, or just stroll in the sunlight and watch the butterflies.

The display of chrysalises is where I stayed the longest. When I got there, one of the large brown chrysalises was shaking. If it had been lying on the ground somewhere, and not moving, I wouldnít have given it a second glance, and even on display it didnít look like much, except for the motion. Motion says "itís alive!" As we watched, a bit of white appeared from one end of the dry brown lump, and soon a whole luna moth had crawled out. It looked like a large white worm, more a caterpillar about to pupate than a newly hatched flyer.

The moth crawled purposefully up the screen at the front of the box, looking for a place to cling. It wound up at the very top, hanging upside down as it slowly pumped fluid into its wings. Another moth, maybe half an hour older, clung to the middle of the screen, clearly winged, a pale green spectre waiting to dry out and fly into the sunlight, there to start all over again.

The butterflies seemed almost tame. They would sip nectar from a flower an inch from a childís hand, casually ignoring the attempt to lure them closer. Sometimes they land on someoneís hair or shoulder for a delightful moment, then realize itís not a flower or banana and fly on. After a few minutes, almost everyone is holding a hand out, hoping for a feather-light insect to land. A few children, eager or careless, chased the butterflies as if they were toys, or fireflies.

A small girl who had lured a white butterfly onto her hand complained that it wouldnít leave. I put my hand next to hers and lured it over. It was almost too light to feel, a thin white thing with a bent wing. I feared that it might be dying, something I didnít tell the girl, but when I put my hand next to a purple flower the butterfly stepped over, sniffed at the flower, and clung to its side. I was relieved. Most butterflies only live a week, but I felt an odd sense of responsibility. That might be why I told a child I didnít know not to touch a butterfly that hadnít fully developed its wings: they may not be fragile enough to be damaged by a touch, but they look it.

I also saw two monarchs mating, on the ground next to a bush. They flopped around a lot, wings beating. One moment, all was black and orange, the next the off-white and black of the underside of the wing. They looked as much like stained glass as like living animals, an almost abstract beauty of color and form in the summer light. And then a stranger next to me commented that "It makes you suspicious." My response was, "If you can find any prurient interest in that, youíd better tell your therapist."

These days thereís always a souvenir shop next to a special exhibit. This one was set up at one end, as the exit, with fans blowing through the doors to keep the butterflies in the tent. I bought a t-shirt, because it was too colorful to resist, even though I already have too many, and in fact too many t-shirts from zoos.

Beyond the gift shop, thereís an educational maze. Skip it if youíre over four feet tall--youíll almost be forced to cheat, because the correct turns are labeled with cheerful congratulatory signs, as you reach the next stage in your life as a monarch butterfly. (The best bit of the maze is the dead end in which you starve to death and are eaten--"good for the ants!")

The zoo--which now insists that it is the Wildlife Conservation Society, instead of the New York Zoological Society--promises us that all the butterflies in this exhibit were raised on butterfly farms. Where the farms get them is an interesting point, though: at this stage, they gather wild caterpillars, promising not to take too many. Done right, itís a sustainable harvest, though even if the butterfly population isnít reduced, something that would have eaten those caterpillars is now going hungry. But all life affects other things, and low impact may be the best we can do.

This exhibit is only for the summer (through September 30), and may not return next year, but if you donít want to hurry to the Bronx, there are similar butterfly gardens scattered around the world these days, many of them larger and more permanent. Itís not the natural environment, with so many butterflies from very different habitats, but itís a pleasant approximation.

Copyright 1996, Vicki Rosenzweig.

1997 note: they did bring the Butterfly Zone back this summer, and I suspect will continue to do so as long as there's interest. It costs an extra dollar above the basic Zoo admission charge.