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Originally published Sunday, July 5, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Dangerous World of Butterflies": A threatened universe of dazzling creatures

"The Dangerous World of Butterflies" is journalist and radio host Peter Laufer's account of the world's most dazzling insects and the many threats arrayed against them, including predators, pollution, pesticides and irresponsible breeders.

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Dangerous World of Butterflies — The Startling Subculture of Criminals, Collectors and Conservationists"

by Peter Laufer

Lyons Press, 271 pp., $24.95

Award-winning journalist and radio host Peter Laufer has tackled many sobering subjects — war and neo-Nazism, to name two. One evening after a reading, an audience member asked the inevitable question: What will your next book be about? Ready for respite, Laufer quipped, "Butterflies and flowers."

But because the event also aired as a C-SPAN broadcast, he received considerable correspondence. Among it was an invitation from Jane Foulds for Laufer to visit the Nicaragua Butterfly Reserva, where she and her husband bred butterflies for sale to collectors, museums and for release at events like weddings.

Laufer, not yet serious about his topic, traveled to Central America, where he learned it's a dangerous world for butterflies. Windstorms and heavy rains. Lizards, birds, dragonflies. Habitat loss, pollution, pesticides.

Even breeders like the Foulds pose a threat; they capture wild butterflies for breeding, and the moment one of their farmed creatures emerges from its chrysalis, it's put directly into a refrigerator to keep its wings pristine. These butterflies neither fly nor reproduce, and may well die in large numbers soon after their ceremonial release.

These innocent, dazzling insects so many people find irresistible, Laufer soon learns, trigger all kinds of trouble. The Foulds, for example, resent being objects of the wrath and derision of the North American Butterfly Association, whose president and founder, Jeffrey Glassberg, calls breeders "self-serving, greedy people who don't care about anything." A scientist with a doctorate in molecular genetics, Glassberg contends crossbreeding and releasing farm-bred animals may spread diseases, parasites and promote inappropriate genetic mixing.

But for Laufer, his awakening to the true beauty of butterflies is a field trip to the southern Sierra's Greenhorn Mountains, where common California sisters and rare golden hairstreaks fly free on the breeze. Laufer realizes the "experience has permanently changed me." So, hooked by the book that began as a joke, he investigates more of Glassberg's enemies, Edith and Stephen Smith, owners of Shady Oak Butterfly Farm in Florida. They sell as many as 5,000 butterflies a week of up to 20 different species. Self-taught entomologists, they dismiss Glassberg's claims.

Hoping for answers to so many quandaries, Laufer consults Dr. Arthur Shapiro, a professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis. Other explorations include a trip to the U.S.-Mexican border, where the Bush administration fence to keep out illegal immigrants has caused environmental havoc; California's Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge, where saving endangered butterflies includes habitat restoration that benefits the whole native community; and Mexico's Michoacán Mountains, the wintering grounds of monarch butterflies.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the area's trees are still poached by armed locals. Several pull Laufer's vehicle from the mud when it gets stuck, and no one utters a word about illegal logging. There's a fascinating chapter on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department's investigation, arrest and prosecution of Hisayoshi Kojima, the self-proclaimed "world's most-wanted butterfly smuggler," which shows how big a business butterflies are.

Like "The Orchid Thief," a book that exposed many unexpected aspects connected to another of nature's beautiful gifts, "The Dangerous World of Butterflies " is an entertaining, enlightening read.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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