Royal Guards : Pacific Grove Watches Over Its Trademark Monarch Butterflies


During the first two weeks of spring, thousands of Monarch butterflies waken from their winter hibernation to engage in a mating ritual so rigorous and exhausting that it drains the males of bodily fluids and kills them.

Danger lurks elsewhere as well: thoughtless motorists often speed through the Monarch’s nesting territory in these days of passion, crushing the copulating butterflies on the pavement.

To prevent this mayhem, Ro Vaccaro, a self-styled champion of these insects, has worked with other residents to make sure Pacific Grove’s fluttering trademarks don’t die before nature takes its course.


Vaccaro is behind the city’s latest butterfly-saving project, six bright orange road signs emblazoned with the warning, “Caution: Butterfly Zone.” The plaques are credited with slowing traffic to its 25 m.p.h. speed limit and saving thousands of the colorful insects during this year’s mating season.

And in Pacific Grove, where molesting a Monarch is a misdemeanor and schoolchildren parade down the streets dressed as the famous butterflies every year, efforts to rescue the Monarchs can be tantamount to heroism.

“We’re butterfly town, U.S.A.,” said Bill Pitt, the city’s administrative services director. “The Monarchs are our image, and we’re very concerned about them.”

Although no one has an exact count of the Monarchs, scientists estimate that their population fell drastically during the early 1980s. A recent estimate indicates they’ve made a comeback and puts the butterfly population here at 25,000--the largest number in years, residents say.

As president of Friends of the Monarchs, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the butterflies in this town near Monterey, Vaccaro has lobbied hard to keep the Monarchs in town. She is not alone.

Other neighbors like Berniece Patton, who was standing outside her apartment in Pacific Grove one recent morning to observe the last of the Monarchs court each other, has also pitched in.


“I don’t like anything getting killed,” she said. “And those cars are so fast, they just race by. Those drivers never stay within the speed limit.”

So whenever a pair of Monarchs tumble to the pavement, she gently scoops them up and carries them to safety. It is commonly known here that mating Monarchs are oblivious to their surroundings and unable to get out of the way of oncoming cars or to elude anyone’s hands--or feet.

Since the road signs were erected, motorists have slowed down considerably, she said, and the butterflies stand a better chance of survival.

For Vaccaro, that is not enough. Anything that stands in the way of the Monarchs’ welfare invariably tends to be at odds with her. Her reasons are simple: the butterflies claimed Pacific Grove long before humans did, so residents should respect them.

“If they are clever enough to survive, we should be considerate enough not to stomp on them,” she said.

No one seems to want to see the Monarchs leave. At the Butterfly Grove Inn, just in front of the butterflies’ winter haven, tourists sell out rooms at the height of the mating season. Without the ornate insects, Pacific Grove would not only stand to lose part of its identity, but a substantial portion of its business.


Hotel manager Sherry Price said her guests are mesmerized by the butterflies, which first swoop down from the ocean in October, painting the sky with the texture of a stained-glass window.

“They run in here, breathless, saying, ‘I found a dead butterfly. Can I keep it?’ ” she said. “But they aren’t (dead). They just can’t fly because it’s too cold. So I tell them to blow on their wings, and they’ll fly away.”

Mating season ended earlier than expected this year, leaving 3-year-old Lily Ann Page, who rode with her parents from their home in Napa to Pacific Grove, disappointed.

“Where are all the butterflies?” she asked, looking up at her mother, Mary Page.

“We always mean to come by here,” said her father, Jeff Page, who had stopped at the Butterfly Grove Inn en route to his sister’s wedding. “This is our vacation spot. But it looks like the butterflies are all gone.”

When they return this fall--and residents are certain that they will--preservationists hope their numbers will be even greater, making the butterfly show all the more spectacular and adding more visitors to the ranks of Monarch-lovers.

“After all,” Vaccaro said. “Who could hate a butterfly?”