Running a Butterfly (and Cockroach) Sanctuary
The Monteverde Butterfly Gardens in Costa Rica have been teaching people about Costa Rica’s insects and arachnids for over 20 years. On a mission to change the way people think about small, misunderstood creatures, they host tours and offer 10-week internships for people who want to learn how to convey scientific and conservation knowledge.
In this interview, Director of the Monteverde Butterfly Gardens, environmental educator and insect enthusiast Bryna Belisle describes what it’s like running an insect sanctuary, alternative paths to university, and why we need to better understand the biggest group of creatures on our planet.
Why do you work in conservation?
I think that we have the absolute coolest planet and it has so much diversity that we don’t even know about yet. And we’re losing things at such an alarming rate.
It’s sad to lose things that we don’t even know about. To me, my part of conservation is doing science communication to get greater parts of the world excited and jazzed about how cool our planet is, so that, hopefully, we get more people in the fight.
What are your main activities in your current role?
I run the Monteverde Butterfly Gardens, which is an insectarium in the highlands of Costa Rica. We provide guided tours for people from all over the world. We show them the incredible diversity that the tropics has in insects. We lure them in with butterflies because people never willingly come to my cockroach garden. But once they’re there, we pull out tarantulas and scorpions and all kinds of beetles and share their life stories.
A lot of the time, especially in the media, insects are portrayed as these spooky, creepy animals. But nobody gets to know the struggles that they have or the ways that they’re similar to us. And so, we try to tell funny stories to people.
I love doing tours, but a huge part of my job is that I train interns who come from around the world to do a 10-week internship programme. They’re recent university graduates who have learned all this amazing new science, are active in conservation, but don’t necessarily know how to communicate all that information to regular people. And so, I train environmental educators.
What would you say is the best part of your job?
I love watching somebody come out the other side of a tour being like, “I’m not gonna squish cockroaches anymore,” or “I think that bugs are cool.” And doing one-on-one science communication. It’s one thing to watch a documentary but when they’ve just spent the last hour and 15 minutes with you one-on-one – seeing the deep impact that can have on someone, changing their mind about some of these smaller and more feared creatures on our planet, that’s my favourite part for sure.
What are the least favourite parts of your job?
Have zero work-life balance. Working in animal care, you know, you are responsible for living things. And so, the clock never stops. Being the owner-manager of my own facility and working with live animals takes huge dedication. And sometimes my family life suffers.
What are some of the highlights of your career?
That’s a good question. I guess I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been given a lot of opportunities to volunteer or work internationally. I’ve gotten to work with different programmes and different facilities creating educational programmes for them, and that’s one of the highlights for sure.
Could you give a synopsis of the steps you’ve taken in your career to get where you are now?
I was lucky. I was studying social sciences, environmental anthropology at university, and I got the option to head to South Africa to work on a project there. So I jumped on that and dropped out of school. I had already been working at a zoo at that point for a few years doing environmental education.
So I just hit the grassroots parts of environmental education around the world. I did a lot of volunteering, including at the place that I now run. I came down as a volunteer and ended up staying forever.
For me, it just came from lots of man hours studying on my own, reading every single piece of literature that I could find in science communication. Every publication. I bought all the used textbooks off Amazon and just really put everything I had into it – instead of taking the more formal route through education at university.
What advice would you give to people who would like to follow a similar path?
If you want to do anything with conservation, animal care, or anything like that, obviously a lot of it is who you know. But also, before you sign up for a four-year degree, that probably is going to lead to doing a master’s or maybe even a PhD, get in the field and volunteer. Find somebody who will let you drive around with them to do turtle conservation. Find a volunteer project in another country doing science communication, or whatever it is you’re interested in.
Find a way to try it out first, because sometimes you end up finding out that spending six months of your year in the field walking transects is just not actually for you, or that you don’t actually like talking to people, so science communication maybe isn’t your best bet. Put in the volunteer hours. It helps you get to know people. You make connections. And you find out that’s what you want to do for a living.
What would you tell people who want to go into conservation, about why they should be interested in invertebrates, specifically insects?
I think that whatever species you’re trying to conserve, whether it is a plant or a mammal or whatever, at this point things are really shifting to ecosystem-based conservation. The vast majority of the ecosystems are invertebrates, so we’re never going to be able to save anything if we keep doing captive breeding programmes of pandas. It would be a much better strategy to buy land in China and pay people to protect it.
Because then we protect pandas, but we protect every other species that lives in that space. Until we know how insects, how invertebrates interact with these mammals, plants and things, we’re never going to be able to protect them.
This is the biggest and most diverse group of creatures on our planet. We need to put in the time to understand what they’re doing and how they’re contributing.
For more on why butterflies matter, check out our interview ‘The Butterfly (and Moth) Effect‘.