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Monarch law: Protecting them from Doc Ricketts?

By CHRIS COUNTS

Published: May 13, 2011

FAMOUS FOR his pioneering work as a marine biologist and his friendship with literary icon John Steinbeck, Edward “Doc” Ricketts has been romanticized by many as a groundbreaking environmentalist. But he was also a voracious collector who ran a successful business supplying biological specimens to laboratories and schools around the world.

In fact, according to Esther Trosow, one of the founders of a new advocacy group for monarchs, the city’s renowned ordinance protecting them was probably enacted by the City of Pacific Grove to put a stop to Ricketts’ ambitious collecting of the colorful insects, which he would kill and preserve for sale.

According to an article published in the Pacific Grove Tribune in 1934, Ricketts — the owner of Pacific Biological Laboratories — captured a staggering number of butterflies.

“Pacific Biological Laboratories sold during this past summer 15,000 monarch butterflies and [they] have on hand about 17,000,” the article reported. One local collector gathered about 3,800 butterflies “before breakfast one morning.”

The article even offers a clever trick for easily catching the butterflies.

Collectors “have learned that the blossoms of the acacia secrete a substance on which the butterfly gets drunk,” the article’s anonymous author explained. “In this state, it is easily caught.”

Founded by Ricketts in 1923, Pacific Biological Laboratories sold preserved animals — many of which were maritime aquatic species — to schools, museums, and research institutions. In its heyday, the lab was located at 740 Ocean View Ave. in Monterey (now 800 Cannery Row).

After Ricketts collected at least 32,000 butterflies in 1934, the city banned such activities the following year.

“I’m not sure exactly why the ordinance was enacted, but Ricketts must have had some influence on it,” said Trosow, a board member for the new Pacific Grove Monarch Conservancy.

It is unknown if Steinbeck was involved in the collecting efforts. But the future Nobel Prize winner certainly admired the butterflies.

“Pacific Grove benefits by one of those happy accidents of nature that gladden the heart, excite the imagination, and instruct the young,” he writes in ‘Sweet Thursday.’ “On a certain day in the shouting springtime, great clouds of orangy monarch butterflies, like twinkling aery fields of flowers, sail high in the air on a majestic pilgrimage across Monterey

Bay and land in the outskirts of Pacific Grove in the pine woods.”

Following in Ro’s footsteps

In recent years, Pacific Grove resident Ro Vaccaro — who was widely known as the Butterfly Lady — led local efforts to protect the butterflies, and in particular, the city’s Monarch Grove Sanctuary. But she died three years ago, leaving a void of leadership among butterfly advocates.

Meanwhile, the population of monarchs plunged as residents blamed a tree-trimming project for the drop.

Concerned about the plight of the local monarchs, Trosow teamed up with Sharon Blaziek to form the Pacific Grove Monarch Conservancy. Blaziek is a former president of another local butterfly advocacy group that no longer exists, Friends of the Monarchs.

The group’s intention is to advocate for the local monarchs and their habitat, educate the public about the butterflies and encourage research projects.

“We’ve been up and running for a couple months, and we’re working toward our nonprofit status,” Trosow explained. “We’re looking for board members, so if you’re interested, let us know.”

For more information about the group, visit www.pgmoanrchconservancy.org.