A playground should be a carefree place for families to gather. Leslie Howe probably wouldn’t have expected, then, that a trip to the park would put her and her three children in harm’s way. The creepy crawler she saw, however, could have left kids and grown-ups alike in agony.
Howe had brought her three kids to a Gwinnett County, Georgia, park, likely expecting to watch them zoom down slides and fly high on swings. And there she held her youngest, an infant, while the older two played on the equipment.
Eventually, though, something else caught Howe’s eye. It was such a strange sight, in fact, that she grabbed her phone to capture what was moving toward her. “What is this thing?” Howe said as she recorded the small creature crawling her way.
But while the mom of three could tell it was an insect that was slowly coming closer, it wasn’t like any others of its kind that she had previously witnessed. “I’ve never seen a caterpillar with, like, a fuzzy, curly tail,” she told USA Today in 2014.
However, Howe wasn’t the only one to be intrigued by the strange-looking beast – her kids peered at the creature too. But the woman’s motherly instinct kicked in; according to a 2014 report from WXIA, she told her children not to lay their hands on the critter.
As it happens, that judgment call would turn out to be a very smart one. Later, Howe learned the identity of the type of insect she had been dealing with at the park – and it wasn’t as cute and cuddly as its furry exterior may have suggested.
The creature in question was an example of Megalopyge opercularis – also known as an “Italian asp” or a “puss caterpillar” when in its larval form. The latter nickname comes from the extra-long strands on the insect’s exterior, since these “hairs” are said to look just like a Persian cat’s silky fur.
No matter what the insect is called, though, one thing is for sure: it’s not something you really want to be wrangling with. And practically anybody who has come in contact with a puss caterpillar knows that to be true, too.
Why? Well, obscured underneath the caterpillar’s furry exterior are spines full of venom. Touching the insect’s “hairs,” which are called setae, can therefore result in a pain as sharp as that felt when being stung by a jellyfish or a wasp.
But the side effects of touching a puss caterpillar don’t start and end with that pain. According to a report on the creature by the University of Florida’s Donald W. Hall, the puss caterpillar’s venom can also cause “the appearance of a red grid-like pattern on the skin that matches the pattern of the venomous spines on the caterpillar.”
And Hall, an entomologist, explained to National Geographic in 2014, “The pain immediately and rapidly gets worse after being stung [by the puss caterpillar], and [it] can even make your bones hurt. How bad the sting hurts depends on where you get stung and how many spines are embedded in your skin.”
After that, the venom may cause a litany of other side effects. Those who have touched the puss caterpillar have also experienced, according to Hall’s profile on the insect, “headache, fever, nausea, vomiting, tachycardia, low blood pressure, seizures and, more rarely, abdominal pain, muscle spasms and convulsions.”
Fortunately, neither Howe nor her children ever touched the puss caterpillar they saw in that Gwinnett County park. However, one Florida mom has told CBS News about the day her son accidentally stepped on one of the insects – and hearing about his pain is heart-wrenching.
Plant City-based Angela Staggs recalled thinking that her five-year-old son had stepped onto an ant mound. “He started screaming, screaming and screaming. He screamed, ‘Get them off me!’” she explained to CBS News in 2017.
As her son “started to hyperventilate from screaming,” though, Staggs had a brainwave. In particular, she yelled for her father to look for insects on the porch where her son had been stung. Staggs’ dad then called back, saying, “There’s a fuzzy-looking thing out there.”
As Staggs’ own sister-in-law had suffered a painful sting from a puss caterpillar the year before, she therefore knew what her son was in for. So, Staggs took her boy to the emergency room, where he was looked over by professionals. And the Floridian gave a chilling taste of what the experience of being stung by a puss caterpillar is like. “The doctor compared the pain to your skin being on fire,” she said to CBS News.
Thankfully, the ER doctor also provided Staggs’ son with the right combination of pain medication, antibiotics and Benadryl to make him feel better. Afterwards, though, the five-year-old’s mom wanted to warn other parents about the dangers of the puss caterpillar.
“I just wanted to put this out there to warn everyone that these things are out now, and you would never expect it to be a caterpillar,” Staggs said. Howe had a similar sentiment to share. “That [sting] could have been extremely painful for one of [my kids] – especially the baby,” she told WXIA.
Those living in the southeast U.S. should be the most diligent in looking out for puss caterpillars, although they have been seen as far north as New Jersey and as far west as Texas. Most of the time, though, the insects tend to dwell in trees – far from curious hands that may stroke their furry-looking bodies.
Even so, if you do happen to get stuck by a puss caterpillar’s venomous spines, grab a roll of Scotch tape, rip off a piece and place it onto your skin. The adhesive should make it easy to pull out the embedded spines. Then apply ice to the affected area – and consider seeing a doctor if the pain is too much to take.