(Watch the short film at the end of the story/post.)
I could still remember the moment I became a pacifist, an animal lover, and a defender of animal rights. From that moment on, I also turned into a better person.
That day, while playing in the backyard and armed with a flyswatter I squashed a butterfly with it. My big brother witnessed the act, became upset, and sad, and then he gave me a lecture I would never forget.
“That butterfly probably had a family; it probably had babies that needed to be fed. Everybody loves butterflies, they’re beautiful to see, and they’re tender creatures. The way they fly and the way they move, it brings happiness to everyone. All living creatures have a right to live. Even if it is a cockroach or a mosquito, or a bee, you should respect their lives. Only if you’re attacked by an animal you should defend yourself, only then you have a valid excuse to kill an animal.”
My big brother was twelve-years-old, I was seven. It remained in my mind forever. It affected me for the rest of my life. Since I received that lecture, I never, knowingly, hurt any living animals. I avoided violence and I never participated in a fight in my whole life. I was patient and I reasoned with measured actions.
At school, it took me a week before I could decide to dissect a frog. I loved science class, but whenever we had to experiment with small insects I just couldn’t do it. I began to overcome that phobia until much later. Visits to the Zoo became more enjoyable the more I learned about animals. I supported PETA and regularly volunteered my time at the local animal shelter.
But that lecture sure had an impact on me. I became a teacher, studied biology, zoology, and became an entomologist. I read many books on animal behavior and loved all animals that crossed my path, even after my big brother got killed by a bear on a camping trip at Yosemite National Park.
The first time I saw that cockroach on the blackboard was the first time I’d seen a roach in my house. My immediate reaction was not normal, like calling the exterminating company, or like running to the store to get a can of Raid or Combat or even a Roach Motel. But I wasn’t too happy about it either. I knew how they propagate if you don’t take the proper steps. My house was clean and organized. I barely cooked at home. The kitchen was impeccably clean most of the time. I lived alone and hardly dated anyone. I was introverted and I loved my solitude. So I left the bug alone.
In the following days, I saw the cockroach a few more times, always on the blackboard. I hoped it was the same one, and the only one. I struggled to decide if I should get rid of it. I thought that if I saw more than one at the same time I would take action. Not directly myself, but I would call an exterminating company and leave the house for a week. I would order the company to fumigate the house and remove all evidence afterward.
My blackboard was always full of notes and writings. Every week, I would scribble all the highlights of the next test I’d give to my students. After a few days, I noticed that the roach was always at the center of a letter. Having all the time in the world, I decided to find out what its favorite letters were. The first two letters I noticed were h and i. I smiled and said “hi” in return.
The next day, the roach ‘wrote’ . . . “f o o d”, and it caused a terrible sense of stupor on me. I thought that was too much of a coincidence. At first, I didn’t do anything about it, until the next day when the cockroach stepped on the same four letters.
I thought it was so absurd. Bizarre was also a word that came to my mind.
Baffled, and still in shock, I put some bread crumbs on the board next to the chalk holder.
All rationality and common sense decreased after a few more ‘conversations’ with the cockroach. Curious, but still in doubt, I erased all writings on the blackboard and left it clean for a few days.
The cockroach disappeared for the same period.
I knew that cockroaches could survive a nuclear war, or that they could live without food for around thirty days, and without water for about a week. I assumed that my house, being so clean, my little friend would starve to death or move out of the house. Both outcomes would have caused misery in my heart. I couldn’t allow the poor bug to die, I couldn’t bear that guilt. After a few days, I wrote on the board again, right away my little friend showed up and we resumed our ‘correspondence’.
“Food”, wrote again the starving insect in a minute.
I hurried to the kitchen to get some breadcrumbs.
After that, I stopped all experiments and during dinner time I would gladly share my food with “Cuca”, that was the name I gave to my new friend, which was short for ‘cucaracha’, or cockroach in Spanish.
I knew that cockroaches preferred dark places, and for that reason, I began to close all curtains and blinds in the morning. I started to give small chunks of rotting food to my friend. And I also began to write a journal. I had never been so happy.
One day, Cuca spelled “ugly” on the board.
“Me?” I asked.
“Yes,” Cuca replied.
Of course, I agreed. It was obvious to think that all animal species thought the rest of the species were ugly. What a gorilla could think about a hyena, or a chicken about a snake, or a peacock about a crocodile? But it was a little different for humans. To humans, a lot of animals were beautiful. Doves, eagles, blue Jays, deer, even elephants, and whales. And of course, butterflies too.
“What about pain?” I asked.
“?” Cuca answered.
“Can you feel pain?” I asked again.
“?” replied Cuca.
Okay, Cuca has never felt pain. How fortunate, I concluded.
Then, I had an idea. I went to get my magnifying glass. I thought about meeting Cuca up close and personal. When I returned I opened the window to let some light in. It was a little after noontime. The sun shone on the board, it was perfectly bright to meet Cuca for the first time, face to face. When I put the magnifying glass near Cuca, smoke emerged from one of its wings. Cuca vanished in a fraction of a second. I opened my eyes as big as it was possible, I also opened my mouth. “Ah!” I screamed and threw the magnifying glass to the floor breaking it into a million pieces. “Oh no, what did I do?” I hit my head and pulled my hair with both hands.
Cuca didn’t come back for an entire week. And when it did, it spelled “pain”.
When I approached the board Cuca reluctantly stayed. I offered excessive amounts of food, enough for an entire colony. I wished Cuca could bring all its family and friends; I didn’t care if they caused the worst infestation ever. I was feeling so sad. It took another week before all things went back to normal. Cuca healed nicely, it only left a small black mark on its wing.
One afternoon, when I returned from school I met the cleaning lady as she was exiting my house.
“Good afternoon professor,” she greeted me. “I need to tell you something; I just killed a cockroach on your blackboard. I think you need to call the exterminating company before an infestation invades your house.”
*Just because a subject is serious doesn’t mean it doesn’t have plenty of absurdities.
-P. J. O’Rourke
Lancaster, Ca. Nov-25-2016