Floats like a butterfly, stings like a PR flop

Insect rights, environmental havoc, dead-bug "release" loomed over nixed butterfly event

May 13, 2010

A new city campaign urges tourists to "Find Your Happy Place in Baltimore." Dozens of butterflies unwittingly drawn into the campaign very nearly found their final resting place instead.

The organization Visit Baltimore planned to release 19 dozen butterflies at the tourism campaign's launch today.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals objected.

"No animal should be treated like a living decoration," Lisa Wathne, PETA's captive exotic animal specialist told me Wednesday.

I know I should be offended that the egg-caterpillar-pupa-butterfly life cycle of 228 insects might be altered to egg-caterpillar-pupa-tourism prop. But I'll admit that insect rights aren't at the top of my personal agenda.

I was concerned, however, by the environmental havoc that Wathne said the butterfly stunt could pose.

"Any time you release a non-indigenous species, there's concern about how that's going to affect the local native species," she said. "They are going to take resources away from native species. That will, in turn, adversely affect the local species."

I'm not sure that 228 non-native butterflies transported from California would chow down on so much pollen, tree sap and plant nectar that the locals would go hungry. But shipping insects coast to coast can also spread disease. There's enough weird stuff going on with the environment — some link the collapse of bee colonies to the practice of shipping the pollinators far and wide — that it might be wise to think twice about messing with Mother Nature, especially for reasons as frivolous as a butterfly release.

And then there's the matter of potential PR damage. Wathne said that butterfly releases are often "a big, fat flop" because so many of the insects are dead on arrival.

"Butterflies are extremely delicate animals, and to be used for these releases, they're stuffed into little envelopes or paper bags where they remain during shipping right through release," she said. "The release is often a sad event because many of the butterflies struggle to take flight or are already dead in the packages and simply fall out onto the ground."

Professional wedding planners have gotten away from butterfly releases in recent years for just that reason, she said.

"It's not uncommon to end up releasing a box of dead butterflies," Wathne said. "It's very obviously, especially at a wedding, anticlimactic and disappointing, and not what most brides want."

You could make a case that "releasing" dead butterflies would be admirable truth in advertising for a city with one of the nation's highest homicide totals. But I don't think that's what the tourism folks are going for.

In any case, Visit Baltimore changed its mind and said it would not release the butterflies after all. Sara Hisamoto, the group's director of public relations, said in an e-mail Wednesday afternoon that the decision had to do with the weather, not the issues PETA raised in a letter e-mailed to Visit Baltimore earlier in the day.

"We're unsure at this point as to whether we are holding the event inside or outside tomorrow due to the rain chance so we are not going to include the butterflies," she said.

So what happens to the butterflies?

"We are going to send them back to the California company," Hisamoto said.

Even though that will likely mean the butterfly death toll will jump, Wathne said she was nonetheless pleased.

"Since a good number die just being shipped one way, I would bet there is a very good chance that even more will die if they are being shipped back," she said. "It's still very good news that they are not planning to go forward. Any time someone holds a release like this, it gives other people the idea to do the same thing. It's certainly good news they're not planning on doing it."

From a PR standpoint, at least the dead bugs won't see the light of day in Baltimore. Add 'em to California's insecticide numbers.

And Visit Baltimore can still count them as overnight visitors.


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