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ALTOONA (AP) - What started as a joke has become a 10-year hobby for an Eau Claire woman.

"I made fun of a friend for doing this. Ironically, I am now doing it," Kris Gessert said of raising monarchs, as she released a butterfly out of the cage it was raised in and into the wider world.

About a decade ago, a friend of Gessert's had plucked a milkweed leaf off the plant Gessert had just planted at her home, and on the bottom was a monarch butterfly egg. When Gessert asked what she was supposed to do with it, her friend told her to raise it.

Since that day, Gessert estimated she has raised and released at least 800 butterflies. She finds them in their early stages — when they're still in eggs or when they're such small caterpillars they're barely visible — and raises them in small plastic cages.

The caterpillars survive by eating the milkweed leaves Gessert puts in the bottom of the cage, and they grow in size until they're ready to create chrysalides — the protective shells in which caterpillars turn into butterflies. They stay in these green homes for 10 to 14 days and hatch as full-grown monarchs. After all of that work, they typically live for only two to six weeks. Unless, of course, they are migratory.

"These are like my babies now," Gessert told the Leader-Telegram.

According to several studies, wild monarchs have a mortality rate of about 90 percent between their egg stage and adulthood. In Gessert's hands, however, that rate decreases drastically to about 8 percent, she said.

Monarch numbers are in decline in North America, and according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the species is being considered for endangered status.

Although she's told herself multiple times she's not going to raise butterflies again, Gessert can't help but check milkweed plants for eggs as she walks by them at her home or in her neighborhood.

"It's a compulsion," she said. "Monarchs are something I grew up with all over the place, and you just don't see them as much anymore, so it's kind of cool. It's the iconic insect of the United States."

Over the years, she said she has learned and, in turn, taught much about monarchs, such as how to differentiate between males and females.

Gessert even brings the cages to work so she can release the butterflies when they're ready to fly. Her colleagues and patients at Northwoods Therapy Associates have enjoyed watching their growth and release.

Gessert's co-worker Sarah Zilk said having the cages in the office has been fun for everyone.

"We're always watching, and the therapists' aides come up and watch them too ... and sometimes we put them up where (the patients) can see them," Zilk said.

As someone who has good personal memories of butterflies, as well as two butterfly tattoos, Zilk said having the chance to watch three get released this year was an experience that felt peaceful to her. Gessert herself said watching them take flight for the first time is "awe-inspiring."

Another of Gessert's co-workers, Mary Jungbluth, said she knew nothing about butterflies before Gessert started bringing them into the office. Part of her own enjoyment stems from seeing Gessert's happiness.

"Kris is just so passionate," Jungbluth said. "It's so fun to watch her. She's got such a concern about their population, and she can tell us from start to end exactly what happens to them."

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