Washington Post // The Dangerous World of Butterflies by Peter Laufer

A Delicate Subject

Sunday, May 24, 2009 


The Startling Subculture of Criminals, Collectors, and Conservationists

By Peter Laufer

Lyons Press. 271 pp. $24.95

“To me,” Peter Laufer writes early in “The Dangerous World of Butterflies,” “journalism is an all-or-nothing calling. A real journalist is a journalist to the grave.” But even the toughest reporters can get worn out. Laufer, the author of many hard-edged books — about the rise of neo-Nazism, vigilantes on the Mexican-American border and, more recently, the suffering of soldiers returning from Iraq — has decided to take on a more lighthearted subject: butterflies. He begins his sally in Nicaragua, where he learns of a conflict between the “butterfly huggers” of the North American Butterfly Association and the International Butterfly Breeders Association over the staged release of butterflies at public events. His investigation reveals a sordid underworld of butterfly hobbyists in which “nefarious collectors fuel criminal butterfly poachers worldwide.”

Laufer writes with humor, as if to concede that he’s trying too hard to find an exciting story where one doesn’t exist. Nevertheless, his book is charming and his attention to detail, combined with a real gift for describing these fascinating characters — like calling entomologist Arthur Shapiro “an endless litany of intriguing butterfly stories” — made me want to read everything else he has written. And I’m certain to look differently at the butterflies in my own backyard, knowing now how far they may have traveled to get there.

6/28/09: Republished in the Miami Herald.