Since mid-August I’ve been working at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in their Visitor Services Department. It’s a pretty straightforward job: I’m the guy who tears your ticket, tells you where the nearest rest room is and Please Don’t Touch The Butterflies, Thank You. Because, you see, sometimes my job is to patrol the museum’s Butterfly Center.
Bringing together species of butterfly from all across Central/South America and Asia, the “Rain Forest” is – truthfully – my favorite place to be stationed. Humid, you’ll find among the flora coffee and cocoa and many other exotic plants that I’ve yet to learn to identify. Because different species of butterfly spend their time at different heights, the Rain Forest is three stories tall and includes a 50 foot waterfall. It’s beautiful and I’ve seen visitors stay the whole day, enjoying the majesty of it all.
But, as with all things, there are a few rules:
“All right, now – Remember: When you go in be sure to stay on the path and please don’t climb the rocks. Also, because you’re wearing NICE BRIGHT COLORS the butterflies may think you’re a FLOWER and try to LAND on you. It’s all right if they do, BUT DON’T. TOUCH. THE. BUTTERFLIES.”
So, naturally, I spend my time walking the rain forest telling people to stay on the path and get off the rocks while chanting “DON’T. TOUCH. THE. BUTTERFLIES.” Sometimes I’m even asked questions, none of which I’m usually able to answer. Otherwise I just play the role of Protector of The Butterflies (or The Jerk Who Is Pretty Sure Keeping Them In Your Pocket Will Kill Them depending on where you’re coming from).
Yesterday, a large butterfly about the size of my hand was crawling on the ground. Normally I’ll just give these butterwalks a stern look and the smart ones will fly away. If they’re injured, though, as this one was, I’ll let it crawl onto my hand and then place it near the fruit trays. Unfortunately, though, because the scales of butterflies are so delicate the moment their wings are harmed (by touching), that’s it – they’re on their way to the Big Flower In the Sky (or the Freezer In The Back — again, depending on where you’re coming from).
Letting it crawl onto my hand and up my arm, I watched it and admired its size. Its body was as thick as a Sharpie and as long as my pinkie. The black scales of its wings glistened and the two patches of yellow near the tips were as vibrant as any canary’s feathers. As it flittered to maintain its balance, crawling further and further up my arm, I almost felt an emotion —
“What kind of butterfly is that?”
Distracted, I hadn’t noticed the throng of people forming around me. Seeing my museum uniform and the butterfly in my hand, they presumed I knew what I was doing. But the joke was on them: I never know what I’m doing.
“Where is it from?”
“May I hold it?!”
At least three sets of children’s hands shot from the crowd, scratching at my shirt.
Somewhere: “Put it on my face!”
Trying to maintain my dignity, I politely explained – while struggling to keep the butterfly from zooming up my arm and onto my back – that I did not know the species or where it was from, “and, I’m sorry, but you can’t touch the butterflies.”
With the children pouting and the parents unsatisfied, I tried to tell them the truth: “This is what happens when you touch the butterflies: they become butterdrags and starve to death.” At least, that’s what I planned to say. Instead, I choked out: “This poor guy is injured and, uh, uhm, well … I have to … take him … to The Butterfly Hospital.”
It was the best I could do and the dozen pairs of unblinking, dissatisfied eyes told me it wasn’t good enough. Staring, nobody moved.
“It’s an emergency!”
Urgently, the crowd parted like the Red Sea.
Scurrying away, I hid and dumped the butterfly on a leaf (it had no health insurance). I returned fumbling with my radio, holding it up, as if there was something to say …
“Ah! I said Don’t Touch The Butterflies!“