A fatal oversight

Butterflies at Moscow exhibit perish for want of a `do not touch' sign

May 17, 2007|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,Sun Foreign Reporter

MOSCOW -- The potted flowers and sprawling ferns were in place, arranged just so around the rock gardens and a few water-filled pools. Small tin lids containing a sugar-water mix -- the perfect meal for an insect -- had been laid out as if at a formal dinner. Three hundred tropical butterflies native to faraway lands had arrived for the big day: the grand opening of Moscow's House of Butterflies.

And then something went radically wrong.

People came. And touched. And touched some more. And within days, 200 of the butterflies were dead.

"Kids wanted to understand if they were alive or not," said exhibit spokesman Andrei Kuleshov, explaining why so many visitors laid their hands on the delicate butterflies, which often perch motionless in between bursts of flight. "They were checking."

It was an exhibit, organizers claimed, rivaling those in Vienna, Austria, Stockholm, Sweden, and London, with some 50 types of butterflies native to South America, Southeast Asia and Africa. Included were the Caligo memnon, or owl butterfly, with a spot on its wings like an owl's eye; the Papilio rumanzovia, or scarlet swallowtail butterfly, with markings as red as blood; and the Idea leuconoe, or paper kite butterfly, with a distinctive white pattern and a hint of yellow near its head.

Every detail, it seemed, had been attended to before the opening late last month. Organizers maintained a constant temperature in the light-filled greenhouse to ensure the warmth in which tropical butterflies thrive. They installed special humidification systems -- the humiDisk 65 -- to keep the climate as steamy as a sauna. They hung delicate green netting from the ceiling and around the walls, and added speakers that piped in the chirping of birds and the buzzing of bugs.

They had simply overlooked one thing: a sign saying "Don't Touch."

And so, a few days after it opened, by a mishap borne not of malice but of unrestrained enthusiasm, the House of Butterflies in Pavilion No. 2 at the All-Russian Exhibition Center became a butterfly morgue. Touching butterflies, experts say, can easily tear their delicate wings, which contain a network of muscles and veins.

"He cried," Kuleshov said of the exhibit's financier, whom he would identify only as a private individual, when he got word of the butterflies' fate.

"It's just ignorant," said a 67-year-old university English teacher, Yelena Alexeyevna, who came to see the depleted exhibit with her husband, daughter and sister on a recent afternoon. "How can they touch?"

The mass untimely deaths might have halted less determined entomology enthusiasts. But the Dom Babochek, as the House of Butterflies is called, was intent on carrying on. Many butterflies live only a week or two anyway -- though the black-and-orange Monarch has a life span of months -- so more were on the way.

One by one, butterfly replacements were introduced. So was a sign at the ticket desk: "Attention! Dear Visitors! There is video surveillance in the greenhouse. It is categorically forbidden to touch, take in your hands as well as blow on the butterflies!"

The fine: 1,500 rubles, the equivalent of $58.

As of early last week, the exhibit was back up to about 150 butterflies.

Some were doing what Kuleshov described as a mating dance, drunk on a "romantic cocktail" of papaya, orange, banana and dark, unfiltered beer, left to brew for three days. One landed on his face. Another stood on the orange linoleum floor, seemingly daring someone to step on it. There were a few close calls, but no one did.

If the visitors had strong urges to touch, they seemed able to control themselves. They pointed and gaped, and snapped pictures with their cameras and cell phones. One woman took a dead butterfly home in a plastic bag (the other dead ones were collected, put in boxes and given away to individuals or collectors).

"Hold on, just a minute," said Kuleshov, excusing himself to delicately relocate another butterfly that was perched, unmoving, at shoe level on one of the rock-garden installations.

No one wanted another accident. Two hundred butterflies had already been lost. So had his favorite, one from the Morpho genus, whose metallic greenish-blue wings are covered in tiny scales that have been studied in the development of anti-counterfeiting technology. In honor of money, he had named it Bucks.

Kuleshov pointed to it, lying dead on the leaves of a fern. Bucks' death, granted, had been a bit easier to take: He died of natural causes.

erika.niedowski@baltsun.com

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