Collecting, Watching, and Catch-And-Release

John Acorn janature at
Fri Jun 18 10:24:19 EDT 1999

Butterfliers and Lepidopterists,

Chris Durden wrote about himself:  "Why am I not a member of NABA? I am not
willing to
encourage the efforts of some of their members to suppress butterfly
collecting."  I would like to comment, as a member of both NABA and the Lep.

When I began promoting butterfly watching as an alternative to collecting, I
did so for two main reasons:  1) it was clearly possible to identify
butterflies at a distance, at least to the extent that one can identify
birds, and 2) collecting is hard work, and that discourages people.  I never
meant to give the impression that collecting was evil, only that there is an
alternative way.  But the world has always wanted to believe that butterfly
collectors are evil (just look at how they have been portrayed in film and
literature), so I soon realized I had little control over that.  As C.
Eugene Emery Jr. wrote in the Sceptical Inquirer, "The human brain seems
programmed to give more weight to one well-told story than to piles of data
suggesting that the story is false."

Soon, however, I realized that the people I was influencing also felt that
chasing butterflies while fiddling with binoculars was hard work.  They, on
thier own initiative, gravitated to catch-and-release.  So I thought about
it, agreed with them, and started promoting catch-and-release.  On my own, I
use optics more often than not, by the way, and leave the net in the car,
but clearly many people find it much easier to learn about butterflies with
them in the hand.

Then I found myself in a middle ground, where some pro-collectors mistook me
for their enemy, and some anti-collectors mistook me for their enemy.  Nets,
it seemed, were evil too-- and nerdy.  But we have had such great success
with catch-and-release here in Alberta, I can't let go of the idea that this
is yet another fine way to promote butterfly appreciation, based on an
angling model, so to speak (trout fishermen especially, are now almost
fanatical about catch-and-release), rather than a birding model.  After all,
butterflies are not birds, and they are not fishes, so why not explore the

I agree that NABA serves to suppress collecting, even though they officially
deny it, and may not realize how strongly their actions affect traditional
entomology by influencing the decisions of protected areas management, and
the hands-off approach to nature in general.  The greatest sadness I feel
about NABA is that its publications give the impression that butterfly
watching is a fully developed idea, and not a work in progress.  "American
Butterflies" is in my opinion not an open forum for discussion of new ways
to approach butterflies, but rather a vehicle for promoting one particular
activity while suppressing all mention of the alternatives.  As such, it
presents "one well-told story," and subtly works against the rational
discussions that we need so much right now.

John Acorn

More information about the Leps-l mailing list