San Francisco, California could soon be the first city in the United States to adopt a law prohibiting the release of commercially-bred butterflies, a common wedding ceremony practice that has peeved local environmentalists.
The seven members of the San Francisco Commission on the Environment voted unanimously on Tuesday to approve a resolution which urges the city’s Department of Environment to work alongside lawmakers and conservationists towards potential legislation.
Should the discussions between city officials and environmentalists prove fruitful, advocates say they’ll win an important fight in animal rights that will make San Francisco a safer place for everyone. In the process, though, they’ll add yet another item to the list of things prohibited in city limits, which so far includes plastic bags, fast food toys and nudity.
“Many San Franciscans believe that butterflies are animals to be respected and valued as part of the city’s natural heritage and should not be used as decorations or for entertainment,” the resolution reads in part.
Butterflies, proponents of the measure claim, can spread potentially fatal diseases, the likes of which are easier to contract when upwards of hundreds of the insects are released into the wild during ceremonial presentations.
“They are not party favors for the human circus,” local butterfly expert Liam O’Brien told the San Francisco Examiner. “We all know the exultation of a butterfly release. But it’s really a hellacious relationship to nature.”
According to the resolution, the Commission on Environment claims that butterfly experts like O’Brien largely agree that releasing large quantities of the insect into the wild may present problems through the transfer of disease from natural habitats to labs and breeding facilities, and vice versa.
“Experts state that release of non-native and/or commercially raised butterflies can cause the introduction of deleterious genes into local populations, which could negatively influence the survivorship potential of native butterflies,” the resolution reads.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors will ultimately have to approve of any ban against releasing butterflies, but so far the effort to have the measure codified has garnered overwhelming support, including from representatives with a continent-wide conservation group who say the ceremonial practice produces an unnecessary commercial market for monarchs and other species.
“Allowing the sale of butterflies creates a commercial market for butterflies," Jeffrey Glassberg, the head of the North American Butterfly Association, told Fox. “Individual monarchs sell for about $10 each. There have already been reports of individuals capturing monarchs at the California overwintering sites to sell to the public.”
What’s more, though, is that Glassberg claims that many of the butterflies sold for such ceremonies are sent to consumers in a sick, dead or dying condition, greatly increasing the chances of impacting their new environments when introduced to the wild.
“(They are) taking these living organisms and treating them as nothing but party favors,” he told Fox. Meanwhile, the number of monarchs who annually migrate to Mexico in the winter is down 59 percent this year, according to a recent census, and past trends suggest the same will happen next year if the species are continuously bred for release at ceremonies.
But while opponents in the fight to enact the ban may be well outnumbered, they don’t think legislation will in the end accomplish much at all.
"If they disallow reintroduction they will actually be injuring the butterfly population,” International Butterfly Breeders Association Dale McClung told the Examiner. “People are just going to order butterflies anyway.”