The Dangerous World of Butterflies by Peter Laufer

Peter Laufer wants you to love butterflies. This is probably easy enough to do, since most people, apparently, are so inclined to begin with. (Not everybody — some people positively hate butterflies. More about them later.) Laufer wants you to do more than just love them; he wants you to have some notion of the extraordinary circumstances which butterflies live through every day, whether it is as part of a hotly contested captive breeding program, or a participant in a thousand-mile, five year Monarch migration, or death at the hands of the sinister traders in endangered insect species. (Yes, there really are such people — and they have plenty of customers. More on them later, too.)

Laufer’s congenial book, The Dangerous World of Butterflies, reads breezily for all that it deals with such potentially weighty topics as species extinction, habitat depletion and illegal poaching. After all, it’s a book about butterflies, and Laufer, an experienced journalist who has previously written a dozen books on topics as diverse as immigration policy, American citizens incarcerated overseas, and Iraqi war vets-turned-war-protesters, proves to be a congenial and entertaining guide.

We are introduced to Jane and Gerry Foulds, proprietors of a butterfly reserve outside of Granada, Nicaragua. The reserve also serves as a breeding center for commercially sold butterflies, an occupation that is not without controversy. It becomes apparent, over the course of the book, that surprisingly little about butterflies is “without controversy”.

Jeffrey Glassberg, of the North American Butterfly Association, is adamantly opposed to butterfly commerce. “Making butterflies into commercial objects is a kind of disgusting idea,” he says. “People who like birds don’t raise chickadees and then ship them around the country and release them into the environment. It’s stupid. It’s silly. It’s a really silly idea.” Commercial growers, who supply butterflies for release at functions such as weddings and funerals, however, take a different view. “He’s appealing to the emotional side of people,” says Edith Smith, a commercial grower based in Florida. “There’s no science in what he says.” Laufer makes no final judgment on the issue, allowing the reader to decide.

The extradordinary migration patterns of the Monarch, which begin in the northeastern US and form a ragged loop to central Mexican mountains, are discussed at some length. The biggest mystery of all: the entire journey takes five years to complete, which is to say, five generations of butterflies. How do the bugs know where to go? Those leaving Vermont and Maine have never so much as seen Mexico. This great migration remains one of nature’s mysteries.

Alas, another mystery is how much longer it will continue, given the ongoing deforestation of Mexico’s mountains. Laufer offers a chapter on local efforts to creatively resist the illegal poaching of timber, with mixed results. In this, as in all things pertaining to the insects, controversy simmers, here focusing on the best use of the forest’s biggest resource: trees.

If the butterflies themselves are the heroes of this book — colorful, harmless to humans, and loved by most — then there is a villain too: one Hisayoshi Kojima, the self-described “world’s most wanted butterfly smuggler”. Through the efforts of Ed Newcomer, a special agent for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Kojima was brought to justice and jailed for two years. Newcomer’s account of the lengthy effort to build a case against Kojima sounds like something out of The Wire, involving undercover agents, false identities, phony web sites and videotaped Skype conversations.

One of the happier episodes in the book, the story also suggests that much work remains to be done to protect the many species of butterflies (and other insects, particularly beetles) that remain on the CITES list of endangered species.

There is much more besides all this — a discussion of butterflies as food, butterflies in art and decoration, butterflies in the evolution vs. creationism debate, butterfly habitat as it figures in the debate regarding the controversial fence dividing the US and Mexico. Laufer doesn’t forget those people who positively loathe butterflies, either: a quick Internet search reveals a website for butterfly-haters, with billboards proclaiming aggrieved or phobic sentiments. “They fly erratically, their proboscis is like this creepy flexible needle, their coloring is like a bad acid trip, and they always aim for your face!” moans one butterfly-hater. Another posts with even more vitriol: “The only good butterfly is a dead butterfly.”

Happily, such intensity of distaste is uncommon, and I don’t share it. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but walking the 20 minutes to my local library this morning, I noticed no fewer than six butterflies hovering above various budding flowers or, in one case, sipping from a puddle in the ground. I can’t say for certain, but I suspect those creatures would have been overlooked a week ago. So consider yourself warned: The Dangerous World of Butterflies might change the way you notice the world. For a book such as this, that’s the highest praise of all.

RATING 8 / 10