Author Laufer On The Dark Side Of 'Butterflies' Journalist and author Peter Laufer uncovered The Dangerous World of Butterflies for his new book. He discusses the history of criminality and intrigue that surrounds conservationists and collectors of a icon of innocence.
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Author Laufer On The Dark Side Of 'Butterflies'

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Author Laufer On The Dark Side Of 'Butterflies'

Author Laufer On The Dark Side Of 'Butterflies'

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Thinking about the sight of a box full of butterflies erupting to celebrate a wedding, Peter Laufer realized he didn't know what to call them. A flock? Too pedestrian. A bevy? A swarm? How about something more evocative? A kiss of butterflies, a kaleidoscope, an eminence, a spangle.

The fact that there is no collective noun for a bunch of butterflies is but one of the many surprises found in Laufer's new book about a startling subculture of criminals, collectors and conservationists.

If what he describes as the dangerous world of butterflies is your world, too, give us a call: 800-989-8255, e-mail us, There's also a conversation at our Web site. Go to, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Peter Laufer is the author of more than a dozen books about serious policy issues including Iraq and immigration. His most recent started as a diversion into the less-stressful environment of butterflies and flowers. And he joins us here in Studio 3A.

Nice to have you on the program.

Mr. PETER LAUFER (Author, "The Dangerous World of Butterflies: The Startling Subculture of Criminals, Collectors and Conversationists"): Oh, it's great to be here, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: And how did you go from your previous book, covering the war in Iraq, to, well, covering flowers and butterflies?

Mr. LAUFER: Be careful about flip statements, is all I can say. I was making a speech at a bookstore in Bellingham, Washington, about the Iraq book, and it was hot, and it was time to leave, and somebody blessedly, luckily, in the audience said, what's your next book going to be about?

And from somewhere, I don't know where it came from, I said, my next book is, because this has been so difficult a subject, it's going to be about butterflies and flowers.

And there was a little titter through the crowd, kind of like the smile I just saw on your face. It allowed me to say, thank you very much, goodbye. And I thought that was the end of it, but this was broadcast on C-SPAN, and my email address was on the screen.

And for the next few days, I received an avalanche of email, and buried in that email was an invitation from an American ex-patriot in Nicaragua who said, you were making a joke, but my husband and I have a butterfly reserve down here in Grenada. We invite you to come down here to learn that there really is a book in butterflies.

CONAN: Which you discovered, and you discovered many other things, too. But when you started out, what did you know about butterflies?

Mr. LAUFER: I knew virtually nothing about butterflies. I tried to remember. I have vague memories of putting them in jars with some kind of poison, and then sticking pins in them. I can't remember if it was for a science project or for the Cub Scouts. And I like them. I - well, I like them a lot now. But then, I saw them as something pretty that fluttered around. Nothing more.

I did not know about this subculture that I would encounter, with all sorts of conflict, like the conflict I was running away from, from Iraq and immigration.

CONAN: And we're going to point out, the weapons are considerably less lethal.

Mr. LAUFER: Well, there is something - there is a breath. The weapons are less lethal and the conflict is conceptual, and that makes it a breather for me for sure.

CONAN: And in short, the conflict is between the group that you refer to as butterfly huggers, and those who are referred to somewhat contemptuously by the butterfly huggers as breeders.

Mr. LAUFER: Well, that's one of the conflicts, for sure - the breeders who are in the business of butterflies for things like releases at weddings and funerals, a new, growing business, only about a dozen years old; and breeders for the compounds that exist.

Now, another industry - many flyways, where one can go into an enclosure and experience butterflies. That requires breeders. The so-called huggers like to go out in the image of birders, with close-focus binoculars looking at butterflies.

But there are other conflicts, Neal. And that's what I learned as I started to find out there's big business in the trafficking of illegal butterflies, conflicts between poachers and smugglers and the stressed-out and stretched-out law enforcement agents working for agencies like the Fish and Wildlife Service, trying to put a stop to this.

CONAN: And sometimes having a hard time getting people to take it even seriously.

Mr. LAUFER: Sometimes having a hard time getting people to take it seriously. What are you doing? You're pursuing butterfly smugglers? It sounds like a joke.

CONAN: Isn't Osama still out there? You're going after butterfly smugglers?

Mr. LAUFER: Exactly. And you're going after them with all of this high- tech equipment and with a side arm in your belt? But the arguments from those who go after them is multiple. And one aspect of it is that it's somewhat akin to the Rudy Giuliani, let's get rid of the guys who are washing the windows with the smeary rags and begging for money, or threatening for money, because crime builds up from the bottom. That's one argument.

Another argument is that we can't afford to allow any species to be treated in this manner because it reflects throughout the animal kingdom, and that includes us. And then, there is the reality that criminal activity tends to interact. And so, someone who's smuggling butterflies may not just be a frustrated scientist or somebody looking for a quick buck. They may be engaged in other illegal activities.

CONAN: Indeed, you talked to a Fish and Wildlife agent, the guy who caught the greatest butterfly smuggler that we know about in history. And he said, yeah, these things are all connected. If you're smuggling butterflies, you're likely smuggling guns and drugs and other things, too.

Mr. LAUFER: And that is the opinion of that agent. And it is not true across the board, of course. But if we are a nation of laws, then that should include not poaching butterflies in Grand Canyon, or selling butterflies that violate international treaties protecting endangered species.

CONAN: As you got into this world, I mean, was this Japanese man who he arrested - and I guess is still in prison?

Mr. LAUFER: He just recently got out. He served his time. And in fact, Neal, that's another aspect of it. If you are engaged in smuggling heroin into the United States, you're probably going to do more time than smuggling butterflies. And this guy went to a relatively cush federal prison in California City, in Kern County in California. He did two years and was then deported back to Japan, whereby all indications on the Internet, he's back in business.

CONAN: He's back in business. And these are not just crimes in the United States. They're international agreements about what kind of species can be trafficked.

Mr. LAUFER: A hundred-plus nations now signatory to the treaty that regulates the trafficking of animals, plants.

CONAN: And there's this serious stuff going on, and then there is the ability, as you describe it, after going out on an expedition with some of the people who like to look at and photograph butterflies, the realization that you are looking at the world in a new way.

Mr. LAUFER: I'm looking at the world in a new way. I'm seeing butterflies where I never would have seen butterflies before. I'm looking at places where I know I'll see butterflies from what I've learned. And I mentioned a 1952 Studebaker I bought many years ago because suddenly, and you know this phenomenon, something that we didn't have anything to do with, suddenly, I was seeing 1952 Studebakers everywhere. I'm seeing butterflies everywhere and appreciating them. And this is a nice relief from immigration crises and the war in Iraq, just selfishly as a reporter.

CONAN: We're talking with Peter Laufer about his new book, "The Dangerous World of Butterflies: The Startling Subculture of Criminals, Collectors and Conservationists." If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255. Email, And we'll begin with Kim(ph). Kim, with us from Norwalk in Ohio.

KIM (Caller): Hi. How are you today?

CONAN: I'm well, thanks.

KIM: I'm just calling - several summers ago, I took a class through the botanical gardens in Cleveland, Ohio. They have a glasshouse where they have butterflies that are from Costa Rica.

But anyway, during this class, we took a field trip to the Toledo(ph) zoo and they actually have a study where they're trying to reintroduce the Karner Blue to the area, which is a small, blue butterfly. And it was fascinating. And then, they're also trying to have different schools grow butterflies and release them.

And the whole idea is these butterflies that are endangered, they feel if the kids learn about an animal that's in their own backyard that might be endangered, maybe they'll look at endangered species in a different way. And it was fascinating. I really had a great time taking this class.

CONAN: Peter?

Mr. LAUFER: Well, that is great to hear. And in the book, I end it on what I think is a nice up note by following the work of a fascinating biologist in Southern California who is doing something similar with the Palos Verdes Blue. The Palos Verdes Blue was thought to be extinct.

And then, about a dozen years ago, a few of them were stumbled into. And Dr. Jana Johnson at Moorpark College has been engaged in captive breeding of the Palos Verdes Blue, and just in the last year reintroducing them onto the Palos Verdes Peninsula - their native habitat - successfully. And it's a wonderful thing to look at.

You're talking about how I look at the world in a different way now, Neal. And yes, the whole butterfly mythos of the larvae, the caterpillar, the chrysalis, and then the closing butterfly coming out and flying to the heavens is spectacular and goes across cultures and throughout time. And now, we're seeing a different kind of rebirth where stuff that we've done, habitat depletion caused by us, is being, at least to some extent, moderated by these scientists who are doing the work - such as what the caller is talking about and what I saw in Palos Verdes - bringing these animals back by this captive breeding process.

CONAN: Kim, thanks very much for the call.

KIM: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to Dan(ph). And Dan is calling with us - calling us from Stevensville in Michigan.

DAN (Caller): Hi. I'd just like to point out that there's a highway in southwest Michigan here that - the construction of it was halted due to the migrating pattern of the monarch butterfly. And if you go to Google Earth and get the satellite image, you'll see a four-lane divided highway just ending.

CONAN: And where does it end?

DAN: It ends in the middle of nowhere, I guess, just shy of this butterfly reserve or prob - there was more political to-do about it. But in the end, the story goes that the butterflies' migrating pattern through Southwest Michigan was - I don't know, that piece of land was particularly important to them.

CONAN: Yeah.

DAN: And so…

CONAN: I think the…

DAN: …the highway just ends.

CONAN: Peter, do you…

Mr. LAUFER: Well, the butterfly, the monarch butterfly migration is one of the ultimate miracles of the butterfly world. It's multigenerational. And in one year, the butterflies come from the northeast and go all the way down to Central Mexico. Then, they spend several generations going back up.

How those guys who make the long trek find their way is unknown still. But one of the problems is exactly what the caller talks about and that is, habitat depletion and the lost of contiguous habitat because the butterflies need the milkweed, their food plant, along the way in order to make the trip.

CONAN: Right.

Mr. LAUFER: And they also then need the particular type of environment that they have in Mexico, in the highlands of Michoacan in Mexico State, to over winter. And one of the things that I do in the book is look at a crazy couple of guys who, for the last dozen years or so, have been, on their own, trying to reforest that area. A million trees a year, they're planting now.

CONAN: And trying to plant them faster than other people can cut them down?

Mr. LAUFER: Because there again…

CONAN: Right, right. That's right. Yeah.

Mr. LAUFER: …is the dangerous world of butterflies. Yes, for sure. That is a Mafia-like situation down there with loggers working against the law, denuding that habitat.

CONAN: Dan, thanks very much, and I hope you can drive, well, wherever it is you think you need to go without going on that highway next time.

DAN: All right. Thanks. I like your show.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking with Peter Laufer about his new book, "The Dangerous World of Butterflies." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Kevin(ph) is on the line. Kevin from North Port in Florida.

KEVIN (Caller): Yes. Good afternoon. I was kind of amused by your stories because I had a friend of mine, he was a highway patrolman out in California years ago, who stopped a van that had been weaving all over the highway. He thought he obviously had a drunk driver, walked up to the van, knocked on the window. The man refused to open the window and he kept saying, no, open the window, let me see your driver's license.

And he could see that there are all these butterflies flying around in the van. Well, he called for backup because the guy wouldn't open the window. And fortunately, one of the people who pulled up happened to be somebody who knew a little bit about butterflies and said, I think we have a smuggler. And that's exactly what it turned out to be.

The guy had been smuggling butterflies up for Mexico. One of the cases had broken open somehow, and this guy had butterflies flying all over the van.

CONAN: Well, just - it shows to go you, Peter?

Mr. LAUFER: Yeah. Absolutely. It's the dangerous world of butterflies right there. And it - what's fascinating about these calls, Neal, to me, is what I found on my quest to research and then write the book. Everybody seems to have a butterfly story. Butterflies are ubiquitous in our culture.

CONAN: Kevin, thanks very much for the call.

KEVIN: My pleasure.

CONAN: They may be ubiquitous. This is a question, though, you do ask yourself in the course of this book: What are they for?

Mr. LAUFER: What are they for? And they're not - they are pollinators, but they're not critically important pollinators like bees. And they are food for some birds and some lizards, but they're not primary food sources. And so isn't it fun to fantasize that they're there because they're magical and they're beautiful, and they bring delight to most of us - although I did find some people who are scared of them, Neal.

CONAN: There are those who are - well, you can find people scared of almost anything.

Mr. LAUFER: I guess so, yeah.

CONAN: I have to ask you, though, in this running debate between the butterfly huggers, with - who taught you how to see the world in a new way, and the breeders who, well, populated your world in a new way, did you come down on either side of this argument?

Mr. LAUFER: Well, I was wrestling with this - who's right, who's wrong? I'm trying to bifurcate this and figure out the good guy and the bad guy. And part of my research was to get a hold of some of the butterflies and release them in the yard at my office in California to see what that was like, because the huggers were telling me this is a disaster. They'll just come crawling out of the box and it will be…

CONAN: Stumble out and die.

Mr. LAUFER: …interesting - stumble out and die, exactly. Well, it was magical. Again, that word keeps rolling out of my mouth because it is what it is. It's magical. They flew out of these containers. It was glorious. I talked to scientists. I couldn't find anything definitively wrong. Some people are suggesting it spreads disease or there's crossbreeding problems. But no, I came away from it appreciating the huggers and appreciating the breeders, and as a journalist, enjoying their conflict, I must say.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get one quick call in. Craig(ph) - we just have a few seconds for Craig in Naples, Florida.

CRAIG (Caller): Good afternoon. I have two quick questions. One is, what is the rarest butterfly? And I had a story of some friends of mine in Missouri. We used to go to the bluffs in the summertime. My buddy's wife was knocking on the bluff with her knuckle, and these butterflies just congregated, flew up on her and started landing all over her. And I've got a really unique picture of one that crawled up onto her ring finger, it looks like she's got a real ornamental ring made out of a butterfly. It's quite unusual.

CONAN: I can answer your first question, Craig. The most elusive butterfly is the one you're trying to catch.


CONAN: Craig, thanks very much for the phone call.

Mr. LAUFER: Bingo. Isn't that right? Isn't this fun, though, how everybody seems a little bit up? They're voices are intrigued. It brings joy to us, the subject matter.

CONAN: And your next book is going to be on a lab riot - like what, the Veterans Administration?

Mr. LAUFER: Isn't that the question: What's your next book going to be about? How do I top butterflies and flowers? I don't know - NASCAR, maybe.

CONAN: Peter Laufer. His new book is "The Dangerous World of Butterflies." You'll find an excerpt at Just click on TALK OF THE NATION. He was kind enough to join us today here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much.

Mr. LAUFER: Thank you, Neal. It's been a pleasure.

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