Shared from the 2/3/2022 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Attacks shutter butterfly center

Jerry Lara / Staff photographer

A cyclist rides by the National Butterfly Center on Saturday in Mission. The center has closed “for the immediate future” because of escalating attacks by right-wing conspiracy theorists.

The National Butterfly Center on the Texas border is closing “for the immediate future” after conspiracy-fueled attacks against the center on social media escalated in recent days.

The butterfly sanctuary, part of the North American Butterfly Association, made the announcement Wednesday. The decision came just days after GOP operatives descended on the site, reviving baseless and false conspiracy theories linking the center to sex trafficking.

The center’s leaders fear the renewed focus on the nature preserve could lead to violence, as similar online harassment directed at a Washington, D.C., pizzeria in 2016 led a man to fire a rifle inside the restaurant.

“The safety of our staff and visitors is our primary concern,” said Dr. Jeffrey Glassberg, president and founder of the North American Butterfly Association. “We look forward to reopening, soon, when the authorities and professionals who are helping us navigate this situation give us the green light.”

More than 35,000 people visit the National Butterfly Center each year to catch a glimpse of the hundreds of species of butterflies there. The sanctuary plans to pay staff while it is closed.

The butterfly center has been the target of far-right conspiracy theories for years, after the sanctuary in 2017 sued over the Trump administration’s plans to build a border wall through the 100-acre nature preserve.

Two years later, online trolls — led by Brian Kolfage, the head of the allegedly fraudulent “We Build the Wall” fundraising campaign — falsely claimed there were dead bodies and “rampant sex trade” at the sanctuary.

But the situation escalated over the past two weeks, starting with a confrontation between Marianna Treviño Wright, the center’s executive director, and Kimberly Lowe, a GOP congressional candidate from Virginia.

On Jan. 21, Lowe approached the facility and demanded to see “illegals crossing on rafts.” When Treviño Wright refused, the candidate began filming on a phone and accused her of being “OK with children being sex trafficked and raped and murdered.”

Treviño Wright swiped at the phone, and a scuffle ensued. As Lowe left the facility, Treviño Wright says the woman nearly ran over her son, Nicholas Wright, who works there.

Lowe had been in town to attend the right-wing “We Stand America” rally in neighboring McAllen, which took place last weekend. The event, headlined by former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, included a trip to the border. (After her altercation with Treviño Wright, Lowe said she was barred from attending.)

Fearing more trouble, the butterfly center decided to close for three days. While doors were shut, attendees did visit the sanctuary — and shot more videos repeating the lies about the facility.

Ben Bergquam, a correspondent for the far-right news site Real America Voice, posted a minute-long clip to Twitter repeating the sex trafficking lies.

“What really matters to the Democrats are the butterflies, and so we unite with them, if that’s what it’s going to take to shut this border down,” he said. “We unite with them and say: Protect the butterflies, (President Joe Biden). Close down the border — because we know you don’t care about the kids.”

Treviño Wright said the center’s closure is the most dramatic step that the facility has taken so far to protect its staff from far-right operatives.

“This prolonged and concerted attack by (former White House chief strategist) Steve Bannon and associates, which has already provoked stochastic terrorism in El Paso and in Washington, D.C., is directed at us and has been since 2019,” she said. “It’s escalating radically as part of their MAGA midterm election strategy, and ... puts us in a very dangerous position.” cayla.harris@

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