John Howell’s Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Meanwhile back in the jungle …

While a granddaughter day-camped recently at Audubon Zoo, my wife was experiencing her own encounters with jungle creatures.

I have written about the house next door to us on Laurel Street in Uptown New Orleans. It has been mostly abandoned since Katrina. We don’t know exactly what its status or future holds.

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The widow lady who lived there alone before the storm has never returned. Some of her family members have occasionally passed through. One daughter used it to house her family’s pets late last year.

Eventually the pets were removed — first the dogs, then the cat, leaving only a cockatiel in a cage on the screen back porch. That brought us into an unfavorable confrontation with the bird’s owner when the nights started getting too cool and we called the humane society. Their man came out and made her take the bird away, presumably — hopefully — to warmer quarters.

With hot weather and rains, the yard has grown up in weeds and vines, trying to revert to jungle status and becoming the perfect incubator for everything imaginable that would come through the fence and devour our flowers and plants. Keeping the aliens from illegally crossing that 3,000 mile border between the U. S. and Mexico is nothing to fighting the alien creatures that cross through that 120-foot fence that separates us and the house next door.

Worst among them, my wife learned the hard way, is the caterpillar of the Io moth. Not only do they eat away on plant leaves, their numerous spines each contain a poison sac that renders a painful “sting” on contact.

These Io caterpillars hatched on the backsides of althea leaves in the next yard, grew to leave-the-home-leaf  size, then started migrating toward our annual hibiscus and other plants.

As conspicuous as the creature is, once spotted and isolated, the caterpillar is still hard to see. He hangs out on the underside of those leaves even as he grows. Finally the tell-tale sign on the top side of a leaf is a pair of mandibles munching away as the creature clings to the leaf’s backside while eating away at his platform.

And cling he does. Rosemary’s worst encounter came when she found one crawling up the strap of her sandle and attempted to brush him away. The Io caterpillar has many tiny feet which help it cling to the back of the leaf, the back of your hand or whatever surface it finds itself on.

Another encounter came when she reached without looking first to pull a half-eaten leaf from the top of a plant. The caterpillar hadn’t yet finished his meal and she got leaf and caterpillar. By that time, however, we had learned that the most efficient way to reduce pain is to apply adhesive tape to the stung surface and pull it away. With the tape come the spines. Then apply topical antihistimines. Other not-so-useful info we’ve learned from the Internet about stinging caterpillars is that that normally don’t occur in such numbers to warrant extensive use of  pesticides. Yeah right.

That’s more of the post-Katrina “new normal” in New Orleans. Stinging caterpillars in colonies.