A bit of a sad tale

So, yesterday, this Monarch was on the pavement directly behind — and in the path — of the rear wheel of my trusty Highlander (There Can Be Only One). 

Monarchs have been in Hawaiʻi since the mid-1800s and unlike the ones on the mainland, these do not migrate. Likely, that’s both because of the distance and the unfavorable trade winds. 

Don’t quote me on that as I’m not — nor have I ever been — a Royalist.

I put my gym bag and coffee in the car and, grabbing my trusty Note 8, I hoped the butterfly would still be there for me to photograph.

Obviously, something was wrong . . . no way butterflies (unlike Hummingbirds and other birds and a few lizards) would let me get this close. Something was wrong. 

In fact, my fear was shortly confirmed. The butterfly tried to move but stumbled. 

This was now a life-and-death situation. The Monarch was obviously dying . . . should I put it out of its misery? Surely — in its state — I would want someone to put me out of my misery and what better way than to be instantly squashed by a ton and a half of rolling metal?

Alas, I couldn’t do it . . . I gently picked it up and put it on the retaining wall, next to some flowers. 

By the way, you can click on the photos for a larger view (there is no SmugMug gallery). Note that the fuzziness of the wing pattern when viewed up-close is a feature of the design and not the fault of the phone-camera or photographer. 

I watched it for a few minutes and it seemed a bit rejuvenated. I left it to its own devices.

Sadly, a couple of hours later, on our return from bulking up, this greeted me . . . 

At first, I thought it was dead, but no . . . the body was moving but it no longer had the strength to hold the wings in a vertical position. 

Once again, the thought came to mind that it would be merciful to put it out of its misery. And, there was no doubt now that it was misery. 

It was an untenable situation . . . 

On the one hand, suffering can only register on a conscious mind. Practically speaking, the Monarch was not suffering. There are certainly scientific and philosophical arguments to be made but my conclusion is that for suffering to exist, one has to have a measure of self-awareness. 

Not so for pain (depending on how one defines pain). Animals can certainly “feel” something for they react. We can discuss the implication of that reaction, but the organism is reacting.  

Getting back on point, I now had to weigh the lack of suffering of the Monarch versus the psychic impact of me squashing a bug. 

Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that its life fading was not causing it suffering but me squashing it would stay with me and add yet another scar among many.

I laid the Monarch on some vegetation, snapped a photo, and walked away. 

Mind you, it didn’t — nor does it — absolve me from some sort of burden. Ergo, this post. 

Hours later, when I went out to get the mail, it was definitively dead. As dead as it would have been if eaten by a bird or splashed on the windshield of a speeding car. 

There’s no lesson to be learned from this . . . it’s just another instance in the constant struggle of life and death and the part we play in it, willing or not. 

As an aside, I had some meat for dinner that same evening . . . along with mashed potatoes and green beans. The meat had been butchered somewhere else, out of my sight. We waited in anticipation as we barbecued the pieces of flesh. I also never saw the potatoes as they were already mashed — someone else ripped them from the ground (alive), other people shipped them, and other people peeled them (alive) and mashed them up after boiling them (alive). The green beans we boiled alive on the spot until they were dead. There was also bread which I enjoyed because of the sacrifice of wheat seeds and some yeast cultures.  Never gave any of it a second thought. 

That’s it. This post has ended . . . except for the stuff below.


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About disperser

Odd guy with odd views living an odd life during odd times.
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21 Responses to A bit of a sad tale

  1. robert87004 says:

    I thought to comment, then had to decide if I wished to indulge myself so, regarding sentient and non, self aware and not. I decided in the negative. Empathy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ‘Tis a sad tail. :-( But I would have done the same thing you did. The butterfly died in a beautiful place and you captured last photos of it. As you said there are other more horrible ways for a butterfly to die.

    Like this…One time when we were driving on the freeway toward Palm Springs in CA and the monarch butterflies were migrating (by the thousands) right down the freeway. Yikes! I’d never seen anything like this! There was no way to avoid hitting so many of them. Made me sad. When we stopped for gas all of the cars in the parking lot had smushed smashed butterflies on every inch of their hoods, windshields, grills, bumpers, etc. :-(

    PS…I killed some green beans for supper tonight by sautéing them!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Emily Scott says:

    I’m not criticising your choice – I would have done the same – but what makes you sure insects don’t have a conscious mind? How can we know?


    • disperser says:

      That gets to a deeper philosophical (and biological) issue. We have a difficult enough time defining consciousness in ourselves and determining consciousness in another living thing of a different species is multiple times more difficult because of the inherent communication barrier.

      The following will likely be long because I’ll have to qualify terms and ideas. Or, I could just say “because there is no evidence of it”.

      Anyway, to proceed, the same question can be asked about all sorts of things (plants, for instance). Some Japanese beliefs maintain objects have souls and, by association, display a will.

      But, if we limit to just the discussion of suffering, we can put down a few definitions. Physical suffering and emotional (psychological) suffering. Mind you, even there we have a spectrum that is difficult to pin down. People who run marathons suffer all manners of physical and psychological hardship yet they do it willingly and with determination.

      Some people fast on purpose and others pierce various parts of their bodies on purpose.

      But, again, for the purpose of this discussion, physical suffering we can define as unwanted pain. Psychological suffering we can define as the condition resulting from the awareness something is doing us harm or we are in a situation that will result in us being harmed.

      There is psychological suffering we inflict on ourselves (we don’t think we are pretty enough, or fit enough, or resent people who have more, or we feel guilty for having more than others — that last one not so much in evidence). Again, for the purpose of this discussion, let’s leave that out.

      So . . . do animals feel pain? They certainly react to things that cause damage to them. But, does that damage come with an awareness of its significance? Is an animal self-aware to the point that in addition to the physical reaction there’s an emotional component to a given pain event?

      I don’t think so because it doesn’t appear to be in us, either. If you burn yourself or cut your finger, you don’t sit and ponder on the significance of the damage. Your reaction is instinctive; you do something to minimize further damage. You might contemplate complications (infection) and take additional steps, but the initial reaction doesn’t include a component of psychological suffering; it’s purely physical. Later, we might mourn our inability to make Spam sandwiches until the burn heals or the cut finger repairs itself.

      If we have a large amount of damage, the psychological suffering comes later (not universally; sometimes we’re just grateful to have survived).

      I “suffered” a lot of pain following my two surgeries but there wasn’t a psychological component adding to the “suffering” because I could anticipate the end result; I knew it was a temporary condition that would result in an improvement over my prior state (being injured).

      If I lost someone I care for, there would not be any physical damage to my body but the emotional impact would be great. That comes both from recognizing another individual as an entity onto itself that is similar to myself and from various degrees of emotional attachment I might have to the individual in question. There is a certain amount of suffering we absorb even when hearing about the death of someone we didn’t know and that’s in part due to our valuing ourselves as individuals and recognizing the same value in the identity of someone else.

      It’s a long road here, but . . . we just don’t see the same in insects. Some animals exhibit behavior we attribute to a sense of mourning (some mammals and some birds) but it could just as simply be described as an instinctive reaction of a social group.

      You tend bees and it would seem difficult attributing individuality (and hence self-awareness) to an individual bee.

      Side note: there is something called the mirror test that’s used to test self-awareness and there is some indications ants (surprisingly) can recognize themselves.

      But here I have to be careful here and not look for “human” behavior in animals (an easy thing to do as we try to explain the world around us in terms we recognize and make sense to us). If an animal can “recognize” itself in a mirror, is it proof that it is self-aware? A baby typically will recognize themselves in a mirror at about 18 months of age. That initial awareness grows into a more defined and deep sense of self-awareness and the understanding of one’s place in the whole of society at large and one’s immediate family.

      The matter of consciousness is more complicated than mere self-awareness (HERE).

      I say that because I’m sure someone will point to some animal behavior and say “it’s just like humans do”. Typically, it’s not. And, when it is, it’s because it’s a universal behavior that has nothing to do with consciousness per se and is not limited to humans.

      In this discussion (about the butterfly) self-awareness comes into play when we consider dying. Are animals aware of their mortality? Does it affect what they do and how they live? It’s difficult attributing reason to behavior (or vice versa) but from what I can understand, there is no such evidence. Some animals appear to mourn their dead, but this is not a clear indication of awareness of one own’s mortality.

      Literally, I don’t think the butterfly was aware that it was dying. It probably was in distress and I should have put it out of its misery. I didn’t because I don’t know if the dying process of a butterfly (or other insects) has pain associated with it. Dying from old age is (in the absence of disease and from what little I know) not painful in itself. We all dream of eventually dying peacefully instead of being squashed by two tons of rolling steel. Even in terminally ill patients, we take care of the physical pain but there’s no escaping the awareness of impending death short of getting drunk or taking mind-altering drugs.

      Perhaps the biggest reason I don’t think animals are conscious is that they do not create art (or anything) for its own sake. All of their behavior is tied to survival (and yes, they “play” but that’s not creating anything). No animal I know of creates anything representing themselves in their environment. No animal I know of has the cognitive capacity to plan outside a very limited scope.

      The second big reason I don’t think as animals as conscious is because they don’t appear to have an awareness of time. It may be that consciousness is closely tied to such awareness. By that, I mean awareness not just that time passes but that there is a future and anticipating what that future may bring based on the past. An awareness that we are part of that future. Animals certainly learn from experience (unlike many humans) but I’ve never read any study indicating animals can plan based on anticipation of future events (outside events tied to weather and seasonal changes and often regulated by their biology).

      Understand, I like animals (even bugs) and don’t want to have them “suffer” but that “suffering” I don’t want them to have is based on (unconsciously) putting myself in their situation. I wouldn’t want to, for instance, be squashed by a giant shoe. But, realistically, I wouldn’t know if it happened; I would be squashed. I can “suffer” imagining such passing before it happens and others (few others) might “suffer” the fact I’m gone and someone would have to “suffer” scraping me from the sidewalk, but I would be no more than a stain on such sidewalk and blissfully unaware of any such suffering . . . unless I’d been squashed very slowly until the boundary comprising my being loses its coherence and I popped out of existence.

      If this doesn’t teach you not to ask me questions, I don’t know what will.


      • Emily Scott says:

        There is some evidence that bees are individuals and that each bee in a colony acts slightly differently. Scientists have observed that some bees spend more time resting than others. When they forage, different bees specialise in visiting different flowers, some collect pollen only, some nectar and some both. See http://newsfeed.time.com/2012/03/09/study-bees-have-distinct-personalities/ for more about this. We assume all individuals in insect species are the same inside because they look much the same outwardly to us, without facial expressions like we have, but studies of their behaviour are showing this not to be the case.

        By the way small children struggle with awareness of time too – and as for planning ahead, forget it – but they are still aware that they are themselves and able to express feeling pain. Animals may be on a similar level of consciousness.


      • disperser says:

        I don’t equate personality and consciousness. Humans have a wide spectrum of personalities but they are all conscious (mostly). Behavior is seldom indicative of anything but a conditioned reflex.

        But, what do you define as something being conscious?

        Remember that observable behavior is not an indication of awareness. You can stimulate a dead frog’s leg and have the muscle fibers fire but one would be hard-pressed to claim consciousness because we know the frog is dead.

        All the bee behavior you point to is (as specified in the article you link) directly correlated to differences in genes and their expressions. Humans are themselves better adapted to certain tasks over others depending both on their physiology and brain chemistry.

        I don’t think, for instance, that you could ever get me to become a thrill-seeker. I’m just not wired like that. It’s not even a conscious thing; I’m more apt to consider risks (short and long-term) in terms of benefit as opposed to focusing on the sheer enjoyment of a particular thrill.

        The conscious part comes in if/when I opt to go against my nature (and incur the associated emotional and physiological stress).

        Same for many other things. One article I read pointed to the predominance of certain genetic markers in serial killers. It turns out the person doing the research had those same markers (as does a small segment of the population at large) . . . but the rest of his physiological makeup allowed his conscious self to suppress those tendencies. The serial killer impulses never made much headway into his conscious behavior (he attributed it to other factors in his life modifying his behavior).

        Likewise, violence, in general, is fairly ingrained in humans, and it takes a conscious effort to refrain from it. I know many people who have a strong desire to pummel me but the fact their consciousness controls those impulses is one of the reason I’m still upright.

        But, again, how do you define consciousness? What delineates self-awareness and purposeful behavior from the instinct of a genetically programmed entity?


  4. You made the right decision (imo).


    • disperser says:

      Eh . . . still not sure and accepting I’ll never know.

      I used to hunt. If you wound an animal, the accepted practice is to quickly put the animal out of its misery. If a deer gets hit by a car and doesn’t die, a cop on the scene will typically “put it out of its misery” (or, they used to). Farmers do that with animals that are hurt.

      We do the same thing with pets once “their quality of life” passes some arbitrary (imagined) point. We put ourselves in that situation but I don’t know if it’s more for our benefits (we don’t want to see the animal in such a state) or the animal’s.

      We certainly tell ourselves it’s for the sake of the animal, but we don’t see animals willfully commit suicide (that I know of) because they are tired of life and suffering and so I’m not sure their “quality of life” is a real thing. It certainly is a human thing.

      Regardless, this post is only here because I encountered the butterfly in its final moments. Literally, millions of insects die every instant and even if I witness them dying, I don’t give it that much thought.

      This particular butterfly — I suspect — triggered awareness of my own eventual end. The thing is, I’d like to have the choice of my passing to be mine, under my control and of my choosing both for the method and timing of it. Much like in humans, in the absence of clear directions (often enforced by legal documents) nature is left to take its course.


  5. macquie says:

    I believe the butterfly must have been happy (even it was regarded as having no such a conscious) to get its life end on the ground with flowers and leaves rather than on the ground sealed by asphalt.


  6. this is quite a story Emilio and I agree with your conclusions! I’ve actually done the same thing with a little bird. It was heart wrenching nevertheless. your photos are beautiful.


    • disperser says:

      Thank you, tdm.

      I’ve had about 50/50 success with birds that get hurt. Many just need to rest and eventually they seem to recover and leave under their own power (although there’s no way to tell if they will survive for long). But, I’ve also had birds who get hurt (fly into a window) and don’t make it. It’s different when you are there and watching them go.

      . . . same with humans . . .


  7. Pied Type says:

    How are the Hawaiian Monarchs faring? Better than their continental cousins, I hope.


  8. colonialist says:

    Deeply philosophical thoughts arise! That butterfly (amazing how widespread the species is, by the way) had achieved what it set out to do and was now exiting left. Should one boot it off the stage, even if convinced that it was aware of its state and uncomfortable with it? Or allow a dignified and natural exit?

    Let’s not visit the same questions as applied to pets or humans . . .


    • disperser says:

      The difference is some human beings — this human being — claim the right to make that call without interference from other entities.

      Animals (pets) can’t articulate so it’s often left to owners in consultation with vets to determine a course of action. I can say that in every case, we likely waited too long.

      Liked by 1 person

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