It’s wedding season again, which has me thinking about one of the most memorable weddings I ever attended. The wedding was ten years ago, just a few months before David and I got married. It was an outdoor affair in the bride’s family’s backyard. The tables were all set with plates and silverware, and little containers around each centerpiece.
Since I was about to get married myself, I’d spent a good deal of time on wedding websites, and I recognized the containers right away. Each package held a butterfly, who had been frozen into a sleep state or forced hibernation. The idea was that as they warmed, they would wake up. Then after the bride and groom said their vows, guests would open the containers and participate in a butterfly release. Instead of showering the couple with rice, rose petals, or bubbles, they would be surrounded by swirling butterflies.
Well, schedules don’t always go according to plan at big events. Guests are sometimes caught in traffic. The caterer may arrive late. Sometimes the pictures before the wedding take a little longer, or there are hiccups with the hair and makeup. So even though this was a small, backyard wedding with a guest list of around 50 people, things were taking a bit longer than they’d hoped.
Finally, the bagpipe player started, the bride walked down the aisle, and the vows began. Somewhere around halfway through the ceremony, those containers started to shake. Flapping against the sides of the paper was audible, and it was clear that the butterflies were awake. But they couldn’t get out. The bride and groom still hadn’t said, “I do.” No one felt comfortable saying, “Hey, you really need to move things along. These butterflies are ready to go.”
There were containers on every table around the centerpiece. Every table. It became a distraction as the guests looked away from the ceremony and instead at the moving packages, and then to each other, wondering what to do. The packages weren’t supposed to be opened until the bride and groom were married, but how long could the butterflies survive in them?
In the time that has passed since the wedding, I have wished many times that we had opened the containers and set them free. But we didn’t. We stared at the containers hoping that the butterflies would be fine, that they could wait a few moments more. We kept almost opening them, but stopping short, not wanting to ruin the big moment. The frantic flapping in the containers grew quiet. The bride and groom kissed and walked down the aisle.
Finally, guests opened the containers. The butterflies were either already dead or slowly flopped in a dazed fashion across the tables. Some guests actually flung the dead butterflies at the bride and groom, as if it would bring them back to life. It was all very macabre and the opposite message I’m sure they were hoping would be portrayed with a butterfly release. Dead butterflies laid on the reception tables next to wine glasses.
I wasn’t vegan at that point, and I hadn’t spent as much time as I have now learning about the problems that come with animals used in entertainment. If I knew then what I know now, I would have opened those containers. And if I knew a couple considering releasing butterflies at their event, I’d encourage them to make a different choice.
Butterflies are not props. They are real living beings.
If a person likes butterflies and wants to be surrounded by them for a wedding, have the event in a garden or an orchard where butterflies already live. Is it worth someone’s life for a photo opportunity? Our delight in seeing a butterfly doesn’t trump their right to live peacefully.
If you search online with the keywords “butterfly release cruel” or “wedding butterfly release cruel,” you’ll find endless stories like mine. Butterflies dying in transit or not making it through the release is common. Some of the stories happened at weddings, some at funerals or memorials, and some of them at elementary schools with playgrounds littered in dying butterflies. What does that teach children about the value of someone else’s life? And at a funeral, it adds a new level of disturbing. First, you lose someone you love, you have a memorial, and then you cap it off by watching as beautiful, colorful butterflies die before their time for the event.
Not surprisingly, butterfly breeders, who have a financial stake in the business, claim that the practice is fine. The non-profit organizations, North American Butterfly Association and Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, disagree with the practice. You can find their respective statements in the preceding links.
Other problems with butterfly releases include:
- Even if butterflies make it through forced hibernation, packaging, and transport, the new environment and/or climate may not be suitable for them. (Butterflies from Mexico or California were hardly meant for an Iowa winter.)
- They may have a difficult time finding a food source.
- The process can understandably confuse their migration patterns.
- Butterflies raised in captivity aren’t able to breed before they are packaged. Once released, their chances of finding a mate, breeding, and laying eggs within their intricate life cycle dwindle.
- Introducing butterflies into the current population can transmit diseases to wild butterflies.
The bride and groom’s marriage in this case didn’t last long, unfortunately. I don’t think it was a butterfly release gone wrong that caused it, but it certainly wasn’t an auspicious start to a life together.