Dobsonfly Guide: Everything You Need to Know

In this article, we cover the dobsonfly and its larval form, hellgrammites, in detail

Dobsonflies are one of the scariest-looking insects on earth. These flies have large mandibles that can grow up to almost an inch and bodies that grow upto half a foot! 

If you are scared of insects, the sight of a dobsonfly will send chills down your spine. 

But are they as dangerous as they look? What do they eat, where do they stay and how likely are you to meet them? Let’s find out.

What Is A Dobsonfly?

Dobsonflies are a species of aquatic insects that are huge in size and look fearsome. Both males and females have mandibles that look like pincers. 

The male adult dobsonflies have bigger mandibles compared to the females. Due to the difference in the size of their jaws, the males look much scarier than the females.

These aquatic insect species are nocturnal and are highly active from late spring to summer.The male jaws, despite their size are largely for show. 

Due to their enormous size, they don’t have the bite force in their chewing muscles to deliver bites than can break past the human skin. 

How Big Are Dobsonflies?

Many different species of dobsonflies are found in the US. In fact, these insects are one of the largest aquatic insects in North America. 

An adult dobsonfly will show an average growth of 2-4 inches in length (excluding the size of the mandibles). 

The males appear bigger due to the presence of long pincer-like jaws that we mentioned earlier. 

The females, on the other hand, have shorter jaws and appear smaller and a little less frightening. 

Male Dobsonfly

The wings of a dobsonfly are grayish-brown and have several vein-like patterns on them. 

Although the accurate average weight of dobsonflies is unknown, they have thin bodies and won’t weigh more than a few ounces. 

They can grow to be equally big during their larval stage as well. 

Since they spend most of their lives in that stage, you might likely meet them as hellgrammites rather than as their final fly form.

What Do Dobsonfly Eat?

Dobsonfly adults live for a very short time and usually do not feed at all. They live off whatever fat they have built up during their earlier life stages.

But the larva is a great aquatic hunter. The aquatic larvae are known as hellgrammites. They live in well-oxygenated and clean waters. 

They are experts in hunting down small insects and fish. Caddisflies, immatures of mayflies, chironomid midges, and stoneflies are some organisms they consume.

Where Do They Live?

Eastern dobsonfly is common in the eastern regions of North America and in some parts of Mexico and Canada. 

You will find them near flowing streams. 

The survival of the larvae highly depends on the water quality. The stream needs to be clean and well-oxygenated. 

You will find them at the base of rocks in aquatic bodies with fast water currents. 

Also, you will be surprised to know that the larvae have gills and easily survive in water without coming out to the surface for air.  

Male Dobsonfly

Life Cycle of A Dobsonfly

The life cycle of these bugs starts when the males start looking for females to start mating. 

In many cases, these insects are seen jousting with other males to grab the attention of the females during mating and earn mating rights. 

After mating, the female searches for a suitable spot to lay the eggs. 

These females often select spots on structures flowing above the water surface. Sometimes they go for rocks near the edge of the stream as well. 

The eggs are covered with a white film that protects them from being destroyed in the heat.

These eggs hatch during nighttime. As soon as the larvae come out crawl directly into the water. Each mating cycle produces around 10-12 larval instars.

They feed on these waters for around 1-3 years before entering the pupation stage.

Before starting pupation, they come to the surface, where they enter the moist soil to become a pupa.

It takes around 7-14 days for the adults to emerge from the ground. These adults don’t live for long and spend most of their time mating and continuing the cycle.

Hellgrammite

 

Do Dobsonfly Bite?

Dobsonfies can bite, but surprisingly, the bites from the males are not harmful. 

This is because they don’t have strong chewing muscles that are good enough to transfer biting force to their enormous jaws. 

The females have shorter jaws and are capable of delivering painful bites. The bites are strong enough to break past the human skin and cause bleeding. 

Do Hellgrammite Bite?

Unlike male dobsonflies, hellgrammites have short but sharp jaws. 

These jaws are capable enough to deliver excruciating pain through bites. Therefore you must be careful around these aquatic larvae. 

Are They Poisonous/Venomous?

No dobsonflies and hellgrammites are not poisonous or dangerous in nature. Yes, the bites from females and larvae can be painful, but they won’t cause fatal injury or illness. 

Are They Harmful to Humans?

Male dobsonflies may look intimidating and scary, but they are entirely harmless to humans

The large mandibles are not equipped with chewing muscles strong enough to generate a solid biting force. 

The females have shorter jaws that can break past human skin and cause bleeding. But thankfully, they are not poisonous at all. 

The bites will cause temporary problems like bleeding, irritation, redness, and swelling but won’t have any long-term fatal effects. 

Hellgrammite

Can They Come Inside Homes?

Since they mostly live around clean streams with high currents, there are fewer chances of them entering your home. 

However, if your house is near a clean water body, adults might come near your house as they are highly attracted to light in dark. 

What Are Dobsonfly Attracted To?

As mentioned in the sections above, these insects are nocturnal creatures and are highly attracted to light sources during the night. They have a tendency to fly toward a light source. 

Dobsonfly Defense Mechanisms &Structural Adaptations 

Dosbsonflies have developed an interesting set of defense mechanisms and structural adaptations to help them survive as adults and larvae. 

Here are a few of the notable defense mechanisms and adaptations:

Defense mechanisms:

These insects have huge mandibles that are almost an inch in length. 

While the males can’t generate enough bite power to deliver painful bites, they use them to fight other males and defend themselves against predators. 

Also, they give them a fearsome appearance to insects, which works to keep predatory dangers away.

Like many other insects, they also release a foul smell when they sense danger. This happens because they have Malpighian tubules in their excretory system. 

These tubes emit a foul-smelling odor which helps to keep predators away.

Their enormous size is a great way to look more dangerous. This keeps humans and other dangers away from approaching these insects. 

Birds are one of the biggest predators of hellgramites. Therefore, the females lay eggs in clusters. They are arranged in three layers and are protected by a white fluid. 

This fluid protects them from the heat and makes the cluster look like bird droppings. As a result, birds ignore it and fly past it. 

Structural adaptations:

As mentioned above, hellgrammites are excellent predators. These insects have an advanced touch and chemical sensing that they use to hunt more efficiently. 

This touch and chemical sensing, paired with their visual ability, goes great for hunting down small aquatic insects.

Hellgrammites have terminal hooks at the end of their body. This helps them to clasp onto rocks to stay still in running water bodies. 

This adaptation helps them a lot to hunt insects without getting swept by the current. 

Dosbsonflies use scent to find mating partners. They have glands near the abdomen which secrete these odors. 

The larvae have the ability to breathe in water and on land as well. They have eight pairs of appendages.

These look like pairs of legs and have gills attached to them.

Female Dobsonfly

How To Get Rid of Dobsonfly?

There is ver little chance of dobsonflies entering your homes because they live for very little time as adults. But if they do, here are some tips to get of them:

Since these insects barely cause any problems and are harmless, if you don’t threaten them, you can leave them be. 

The adult doesn’t live for long, so they’ll probably die voluntarily and walk out of your home. 

If you can’t bear the sight of these fearsome-looking insects near your house, you can use pesticides to drive them off. 

The most effective way is to use a dry insecticide. Make a dilute solution by mixing an ounce of insecticide in one gallon of water. 

Store the solution in a spray bottle and sprinkle it on areas where you see these insects. 

Since they are highly attracted to lights, you can place traps near a light source to catch these flies and get rid of them instantly. 

Male Dobsonfly

Fascinating Facts About Dobsonfly

Here are a few things you would love to learn about these insects:

  1. Adult dobsonflies barely consume any solid food substance. The females, on rare occasions, might feed on nectar, but the males barely need any food to survive.
  2. Dobsonflies have a short life span as adults. They spend the majority of their adult lives searching for mating, fighting for mating rights, and mating. 
  3. The dobsonfly larvae are one of the rare insects that can survive on land and underwater. 
  4. Dobsonflies have a strange way of flying but can cover great distances using their wings.
  5. At the end of the mating process, some species of male dobsonflies give nutrient-rich spermatophores to females as gifts. 

Female Dobsonfly

Frequently Asked Questions 

What happens if a dobsonfly bites you?

If a male dobsonfly bites you, there will hardly be any pain. But if a female bites you, it will be highly painful. 
Female bites can easily break past the human skin and cause problems like bleeding, pain, and irritation. These bites are not poisonous and won’t cause any fatal injuries.

What does a Dobson fly eat?

Adult dobsonflies do not eat; they spend their short adult life mating. The larvae are great hunters. 
They are carnivorous in nature and are experts in hunting down aquatic insects found in clean water streams with high currents. They can also hunt small fish.

Can you hold a dobsonfly?

You can hold a male dobsonfly but do not try to hold or pick up a female dobsonfly. The females have the ability to deliver painful bites. 
These bites can cause bleeding. You should also not hold a dobsonfly larva; they can also bite with good force. Wear safety gloves if you want to touch these insects.

How long do Dobson flies live?

Dobsonfly larvae live from 1-3 years underwater. Here they actively hunt and consume insects to stay healthy. 
The adults, however, do not survive for a long time, the males die within a few days, and the females can live up to 10 days.

Wrap Up

Dobsonflies might look fearsome, but they are nowhere near dangerous to humans. 

Especially the males might look too scary with those huge mandibles but are not capable of causing any harm to humans and pets. 

If you ever encounter these insects, there is no need to be scared, as long as you don’t threaten them, they won’t do a thing. Thank you for reading the article. We hope it was informative.

California Dobsonfly
California Dobsonfly
Fishfly

 

California Dobsonfly
California Dobsonfly
California Dobsonfly
Female Dobsonfly
Female Dobsonfly
Dobsonfly:  Dead from unknown causes

 

Female Dobsonfly

Authors

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  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

    View all posts
  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

    View all posts

106 thoughts on “Dobsonfly Guide: Everything You Need to Know”

  1. Merril,

    Fantastic photo!

    I believe what we’re seeing in this picture is the defensive posturing of the dobson fly. As a child I was witness to an actual dobson fly attack. A female dobson fly nipped my grandmother’s ankle and actually drew blood. My grandmother shrieked and kicked her ankle and sent the fly skittering across the kitchen floor. It landed in a corner and assumed this posture.

    If memory is corrrect, the body was arched, as in your photo, the jaws opened and closed in a menacing manner and the wings were flexing forward and back in a pulsating rythm. The whole display made an already large and intimidating bug appear downright ferocious.

    I haven’t seen a dobson fly since and was beginning to wonder if perhaps I had just imagined the whole display. Well here it is, captured forever in you photo.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  2. Re: Male Dobsonfly post of 6/12/10; If “Owner of a Newly Found Dread” is an author, please provide the title of your works, what a delightful read! Why didn’t you get closer to it for the photo, so we could see it better 😀 lol

    Reply
  3. THANKS FOR THE GREAT PICTURE HELPING ME TO FINALLY REALIZE THAT THIS IS THE FEMALE! I SAVED ONE TWO WEEKS AGO FROM A SPIDER WEB AND SPENT A HALF HOUR ‘SURGICALLY’ REMOVING WEBBING FROM THREE OF HER LEGS AND MOUTH. THERE ARE ALSO TWO OTHER SETS OF MANDIBLES BEHIND HER TWO LARGE MAIN ONES! REWARDING EXPERIENCE — AT ONE POINT SHE FINALLY STOPPED PANICKING AND JUST LOOKED AT ME FOR A LONG MINUTE. REMOVED ALL BUT A TINY BIT IN HER LAST SET OF MANDIBLES; LEFT HER IN QUIET AREA TO ALLOW HER TO RECOVER. NEXT MORNING RELEASED HER AND GOT ONE PICTURE. WAS THRILLED TO SEE HER AGAIN TWO DAYS LATER AND SAW HER WINGS HAD GOTTEN DARKER AND SHE LOOKED GREAT!

    Reply
    • Dear kfbdiver,
      Thank you for such a wonderful chronicle of a thrilling insect rescue, though we fear a lucky spider was robbed of its prey, and we can imagine how large and fecund one of the Orbweavers might have become on that meal.

      Reply
  4. I am informing you and the site owner that this photo was taken in Pennsylvania in 2008 by Jo Ann Poe-McGavin. This is a direct violation of copyright law as is removing the copyright notice on the photo-I have the original EXIF data on this photo on file.

    I request that it be removed from this site.

    Jo Ann Poe-McGavin
    http://www.pawild.net

    Reply
    • Dear Jo Ann,
      We are very sorry if what you say is true. This is the information that is included on our submission form: “By submitting an identification request and/or photo(s), you give WhatsThatBug.com permission to use your words and image(s) on their website and other WhatsThatBug.com publications. Also, you swear that you either took the photo(s) yourself or have explicit permission from the photographer or copyright holder to use the image.” We do not steal images from other websites. We have no way of verifying that images are taken by the person who submits them, but we trust that there will not be any copyright infringement. We checked the original file and there is no copyright information imbedded in it. The file info indicates that it was created on 1/27/2011 at 9:18 PM. Are you certain that the image is your image and not a similar image? Do you know how the person who submitted the image could have gotten your copyrighted image? Do you have the image posted to your website? We would gladly include an editor’s note and a link to your site indicating that you are the author of the image if you will allow the posting to remain, otherwise we will delete it. Please advise.

      Reply
  5. Thank you very much for the reply. This constant change in Biology might sometimes be confusing, but it really instigates us to search for more information. Fascinanting!

    Reply
    • I watched Ernesto´s little brother curvstomp one of these at a Christian camp. Its head popped off but we kept it as a war trophy.

      Reply
  6. Rhonda Jackson, the group’s spokeswoman, bait fish says that fishermen are familiar with.
    Uploaded a new video from this years Early Catch and
    Release trout season in bait fish Upper Wisconsin. The Lowrance HDS-5 has developed a rising standing
    among deep sea and fresh water fishermen alike. The
    water, which was a hard fighting blue trout. In 1772, he caught
    upwards of 1 million shad and herring, according to Pete.

    Reply
  7. Rhonda Jackson, the group’s spokeswoman, bait fish says that fishermen are familiar with.
    Uploaded a new video from this years Early Catch and
    Release trout season in bait fish Upper Wisconsin. The Lowrance HDS-5 has developed a rising standing
    among deep sea and fresh water fishermen alike. The
    water, which was a hard fighting blue trout. In 1772, he caught
    upwards of 1 million shad and herring, according to Pete.

    Reply
  8. Thanks for posting this – great photo!

    I was raised in the country (upstate NY), and have never feared bugs.

    Yellow Jackets, yes. But all other bees, no. The Bumblebee is my favorite insect.
    Spiders, no (though I’ve come across 3-4 Black Widows over the years – lol – wasn’t scared, just very careful!).
    As such, any bug that comes near me, I will often try to get it to crawl on my arm, or at least set it on a stick to watch. Cicadas in particular are very amusing and beautiful creatures that don’t seem to be afraid of people. Dragonflies the same.

    So….one night a couple years back, I was on the porch, talking to a friend on the phone, when this giant insect came in and landed on the deck. It was dark, but I still decided to pick it up – not noticing the giant mandibles on this creature, still talking away with my friend. Then…..AHHHHHHHH! THAT $#!$er BIT ME!!!!! I immediately dropped it and squashed it with my shoe. Meanwhile, I had a deep, bleeding gash on the tip of my index finger.

    Wow, that was painful – imagine someone taking a pair of wire cutters and using them to cut a hole in your skin.

    Never could figure out what it was until today. Lesson for all: Do NOT handle female Dobsonflies – they WILL bite, and when they do, you WILL feel it, and you WILL bleed profusely.

    Cheers!
    Jerry
    Charlotte

    Reply
  9. Thanks for posting this – great photo!

    I was raised in the country (upstate NY), and have never feared bugs.

    Yellow Jackets, yes. But all other bees, no. The Bumblebee is my favorite insect.
    Spiders, no (though I’ve come across 3-4 Black Widows over the years – lol – wasn’t scared, just very careful!).
    As such, any bug that comes near me, I will often try to get it to crawl on my arm, or at least set it on a stick to watch. Cicadas in particular are very amusing and beautiful creatures that don’t seem to be afraid of people. Dragonflies the same.

    So….one night a couple years back, I was on the porch, talking to a friend on the phone, when this giant insect came in and landed on the deck. It was dark, but I still decided to pick it up – not noticing the giant mandibles on this creature, still talking away with my friend. Then…..AHHHHHHHH! THAT $#!$er BIT ME!!!!! I immediately dropped it and squashed it with my shoe. Meanwhile, I had a deep, bleeding gash on the tip of my index finger.

    Wow, that was painful – imagine someone taking a pair of wire cutters and using them to cut a hole in your skin.

    Never could figure out what it was until today. Lesson for all: Do NOT handle female Dobsonflies – they WILL bite, and when they do, you WILL feel it, and you WILL bleed profusely.

    Cheers!
    Jerry
    Charlotte

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comment Jerry. We have always suspected the bite of a female Dobsonfly might be very painful, and that of a Hellgrammite as well. Though the male Dobsonfly looks quite fearsome, he is perfectly harmless.

      Reply
  10. Thanks for the useful information. I’ve just moved to the east coast of U.S and have never seen one of these… Oddly enough, I have seen many a Hellgrammite but never knew they were the same thing… to be honest, I was never aware that the Hellgrammites was the early form of anything.

    Reply
  11. I was bit by a female on my back, holy crap!! It was so painful after about 15 mins I was achy in my back and neck and got so sick. Didn’t last long but the bite was painful to the touch for days!!!

    Reply
  12. I found one on my porch last night, in Texas. It is still kind of just hanging out today on the planter. Scared the dog water out of me though last night!!

    Reply
  13. Female Dobsonflies have short, powerful pincers. That’s probably what you’re seeing when think it’s an “earlier” stage of growth. Males have long pincer-type appendages, but they are purely for show. Females can deliver a powerful pinch, so it’s best not to handle them. They won’t hurt your kids, but I’d encourage you to educate your kids, and teach them to observe the Dobsonflies, but to leave them as they are. Their size is impressive, and a bit intimidating, but they’ll find a mate and die soon.

    Reply
  14. I live in Texas and I didn’t even know these existed until One landed on me tonight on my shirt. I started freaking out trying to get it off of me and it states stuck and it had to take my husband to wack it off for it to leave. scariest moment of my life!!!

    Reply
    • We understand they give off a foul odor as well. Though frightening, male Dobsonflies are perfectly harmless, though one might accidentally fly into a person’s eye, in which case those sabre mandibles might do some serious damage. Larval Hellgrammites and adult female Dobsonflies both have much more practical mandibles, for defense in her case and capturing prey in the larva’s case, and an encounter with a thin skinned person might result in the loss of some blood.

      Reply
  15. Adult dobsonflies are some of the largest non- Lepidopteran insects of temperate zones such as the United States and Canada , with a wingspan of up to 180 mm in some species of Male adults are easily recognized by their long, curving mandibles , reaching up to 40 mm in length, which they use in competition for females.

    Reply
  16. I’m in east Texas and found one in my front porch this afternoon HOLEEE COW!! Have never seen a big that big in my life. Now I have to use the back door…or sell the house.

    Reply
  17. Just found one on my window at home earlier. When I first had saw it. I was like wat the heck. I had never seen anything like it ever. And everyone I ask here about it in Cuero Texas knows nothing about them as well. Had never seen one.

    Reply
  18. We found two in Wharton Texas!!? Never seen anything so large for a bug in my life!! What the heck, I looked up this bug, can’t believe this can fly and the Pinchers on this makes me not what to go outside with out a net over me! It said this is not harmful, but I can tell you if this thing flew on me I’d have a heart attack!!

    Reply
  19. We saw one of these recently in Georgetown, TX. Like the 2011 post from Gary Manis, we had never seen one of these dobsonflies before.

    I’m a bit disturbed by the image where some one put a screw into one. None-the-less, I’m thankful there’s this site to help identify critters properly.

    Reply
  20. We saw one of these recently in Georgetown, TX. Like the 2011 post from Gary Manis, we had never seen one of these dobsonflies before.

    I’m a bit disturbed by the image where some one put a screw into one. None-the-less, I’m thankful there’s this site to help identify critters properly.

    Reply
  21. Oh my sweet tea.. found one tonight in Tennessee.. those things are huge. I thought it was a dragon fly till I took his picture and caught those pincers in the flash.. we are not going to be besties for sure!! .. never seen one in Texas tho

    Reply
  22. I was vacationing in Bat Cave , North Carolina and moved a chair and there was a bug I had never seen before! Now I know it was a Dobsonfly! Thanks for the great pictures.

    Reply
  23. Just found one in PA… its huge and alien looking. Um pretty sure I am never going outside again or selling the house.

    Reply
  24. Found one in North Carolina 7/3/2017 I’m from Florida and i just had to catch this thing when i saw it flying in the light it looked massive!

    Reply
  25. I have seen female dobsonflies in two consecutive years in Ocean Falls on British Columbias central coast (Great Bear Rainforest). 2001 + 2002. These were either straying a helluva long distance or there may be a previously unknown population located somewhere there. I have never seen them anywhere in BC before or since.
    I am a naturalist with 35 years experience so I am sure of the identification.

    Reply
    • Since we have no official entomological qualifications, we do not want to challenge your observations. Dobsonflies in the genus Corydalus are not reported from British Columbia according to BugGuide data, however, the family which includes similar looking Fishflies does range in British Columbia, according to BugGuide data. Please scan the images posted to BugGuide to see if you might have encountered one of the similar looking Fishflies.

      Reply
  26. I have seen female dobsonflies in two consecutive years in Ocean Falls on British Columbias central coast (Great Bear Rainforest). 2001 + 2002. These were either straying a helluva long distance or there may be a previously unknown population located somewhere there. I have never seen them anywhere in BC before or since.
    I am a naturalist with 35 years experience so I am sure of the identification.

    Reply
  27. I just found a male Dobsonfly in the cats water dish inside the catio. Don’t know how he got in, but is the biggest flying bug I have ever seen. Eau Claire, WI.

    Reply
  28. i saw this bug up in Elba Alabama and had no idea what this was and it was blowing my mind ive been looking for days and coming across this website made me so happy to finally figure it out. its so weird looking but really cool.

    Reply
  29. We just found a huge male walking across our porch in SW Ohio. It scared me to death! My husband was fascinated though.

    Reply
  30. Just saw one today at QT. Biggest bug I’ve ever seen. Stopped me in my tracks. I videotaped it and that’s when i zoomed in and saw those pinchers. Yikes! Creepy bug.

    Reply
  31. Just had one land on my screen porch. Female. Told my husband not to touch it- of course he goes right to touch it. She is fine. Hanging on screen still in lower position.

    Reply
  32. I have one on my porch screen. She is just hanging out attracted to the automatic light. I can see her whole body through the screen. James Taylor is playing up the road so maybe she is listening. Berkshires, Ma.

    Reply
  33. Moi je suis au Québec et j’ai eu cet insecte sur mon balcon. Je vis au 3e étage et loin des cours d’eau.

    Reply
  34. Found one on front porch door frame. After a valiant battle I destroyed the sucker. Wife still creeped out but I am feeling like “special forces” right now

    Reply
  35. I noticed that this insect is typically fond in Maryland ,however i live in Northeast Georgia at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountain Chain.I just caught this huge beast flying in my garage.What is this strange criter doing in my neck of the woods and should i exspect more .
    Thankx

    Reply
  36. I noticed that this insect is typically fond in Maryland ,however i live in Northeast Georgia at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountain Chain.I just caught this huge beast flying in my garage.What is this strange criter doing in my neck of the woods and should i exspect more .
    Thankx

    Reply
  37. Just found one hanging outside my window on screen in Baltimore, MD. I just hit the inside of the screen to get him off, didn’t want this big bug inside my home. Really creepy looking.

    Reply
  38. I killed an insect I believe was a female Dobsonfly, but its coloring was black and yellow. Could it still be a Dobsonfly? I have pictures if interested. It had four wings and a glide-like component under the wings, but that part is not viewable in the pictures.

    Reply
  39. Susan, I rescued a female Dobson fly this weekend from being crushed on the trail and just found out what it is…glad you saved the one you did 10 years ago!! Keep up the good work!

    Reply
  40. I’m so sad! I had a female Dobsonfly outside my door all day today. I pointed it out to my neighbor who said “oh, this is a bad bug!” And proceeded to grab it and step on it! I didn’t know what it was until I researched. I had never seen one before. Now I’m so upset!!! I plan on telling him to never kill living things

    Reply

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