Josh Gipper, who lives in Denver, was considering getting his family a pet. He thought it would be fun for his 3-year-old daughter and 6-year-old-son to watch a creature grow, and he hoped it would also bring meaning and love to their lives.
But life has been overwhelming in the Gipper household, as it has for so many families, because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We were thinking about getting a dog, but everything is a little too crazy right now,” he said. “There are so many things going on. We both work from home and the kids are at home, and we are constantly home schooling them.”
Mr. Gipper turned instead to caterpillars. Online orders for caterpillars in kits have spiked since sheltering in place orders went into effect, and the kits arrive with everything needed — a habitat for the caterpillar (either a jar or one made of nylon and mesh); food; instructions; and family-friendly guides to metamorphosis.
You can order kits that contain live caterpillars or ones that carry a voucher that can be exchanged for a live caterpillar delivery when you are ready. Fancy kits also include packets of seeds you can plant in your garden to attract the butterflies back once they are released. Prices range from under $20 to about $40.
The caterpillars don’t look like much, but they are sturdy. Some suppliers guarantee 99.9 percent of caterpillars will turn into butterflies, while others say three out of five will.
The insects have caught the imaginations of children, grandparents and even health care workers. Kit owners say it is engrossing to watch the steps it takes for caterpillars to turn into butterflies over the course of several weeks — they stop eating, hang upside down from a leaf, spin into a cocoon and then emerge as a butterfly, which is then released into the wild.
Watching the caterpillars go through their life cycle has also reintroduced the concept of time to his household, Mr. Gipper said.
“While we are at home, time doesn’t really exist, and this gives us something to anticipate,” he said. “There is a time frame that we know about. We expect something to happen over the next two to three weeks, and we get to monitor it.”
Retailers, including one that has been selling the kits for more than 50 years, are hurrying to meet the demand.
Insect Lore, a company in Shafter, Calif., that has been making and shipping caterpillar kits since 1969, has seen sales go up fivefold since the pandemic started.
“With these caterpillars something new is happening every day for three weeks,” said Marcus McManamna, president of Insect Lore, which sells the kits online and in neighborhood toy stores.
Nature Gift Store in Bremerton, Wash., has experienced such high demand for caterpillar kits, it doubled its work force, adding 12 new employees to the payroll, mostly to pack and ship the kits. Most of the new workers “are from the restaurant industry,” said Randi Jones, the owner. “We also have people who are house cleaners and can’t go into people’s homes right now. One is in the massage industry.”
Rebecca Puddy, a journalist for ABC News in South Australia, laughed about how much time she spent watching them with her son, age 7, and daughter, 5 (and with a 2-week-old baby in her arms). “Bought my kids a butterfly kit,” she posted on Twitter on April 2, with an eye-roll meme. “Have stalked that caterpillar for two days, and he turned into a chrysalis when we were busy having dinner tonight.”
Understanding their entertainment value, nursing homes and hospice facilities are securing butterfly kits for residents who are in isolation during the pandemic. “It has given these residents something to look forward to everyday,” said Brandy Jordan, 34, who works for a hospice company in Pittsburgh and has helped secure kits for 30 facilities in eight counties. “My job is literally to put a smile on as many people’s faces that I possibly can.”
Lesa Haney, a fourth-grade teacher in Austin, Texas, decided to take in 18 “orphan” caterpillars from a local community theater that originally bought them for a butterfly festival.
They came in handy when her grandchildren came to live with her for five weeks (their mother is a nurse in a nursing home and didn’t want to potentially expose them to the coronavirus). “They loved the experience,” said Ms. Haney. “I think the butterflies represent hope in such a difficult time. Every time they see a butterfly on our property now, they say that is ‘our butterfly.’”
Among caterpillar owners there is some debate about whether these creatures are even pets.
Rowan Minarcin, 26, a chef in Seattle, is considering getting them as a substitute for a furry friend. “I’m currently staying with my girlfriend during quarantine, and her roommate is allergic to cats and dogs,” he said. “I thought it’d make a cute pet for a while since we had to be home anyway.”
Krystal Tranby, who lives in Fertile, Minn., said her 4-year-old daughter considers their caterpillars part of the family. “The first thing she wanted to do was send pictures to her grandparents,” she said.
But Mr. Gipper feels differently. “They are curious creatures right now, but they aren’t really pets,” he said. “You can’t even name them because there aren’t traits to differentiate them. They are these crawling things inside a gross cup, and they will continue to get grosser and grosser as the weeks progress.”
Owners can feel good about the fact that released butterflies are beneficial for the environment because they act as pollinators. But Mr. McManamna of Insect Lore said some families don’t get to that stage.
“Our preference is that families release the butterflies into the wild, but we have heard stories of families releasing them into their homes,” he said. “They have flower arrangements to just simply have them stay. It’s because they’ve become attached to them.”
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