A Bug-Eat-Bug World

Judy and Bill Fleming had a dream. And it was full of slippery, slimy, buggy-eyed fish.

Michael Weissmann also had a dream. And it was full of creepy, crawly, hairy insects.

Together these visions built two of the Denver area's most talked-about tourist destinations. While the Flemings founded Colorado's Ocean Journey, Weissmann's dream metamorphosed into the wildly popular Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster. For Weissmann, however, the dream also turned into a personal nightmare.

A self-described "bug geek," Weissmann had the good sense to realize that not everyone shares his passion for six-legged invertebrates. So when he wanted to open a mini-zoo for bugs, he zeroed in on the perfect marketing gimmick: mysterious, photogenic and fleeting. "Butterflies," he says, "are the ambassadors for the whole insect world." When it opened in 1995, the $3.5 million Butterfly Pavilion was expected to draw 100,000 visitors within twelve months. Instead, it drew 225,000.

Set among prairie grasses and an outdoor butterfly garden on a busy Westminster intersection, the pavilion's centerpiece is a glass-walled conservatory filled with tropical greens and flowers where 1,200 butterflies flit about and perch on visitors' shoulders. "We would've had a cockroach zoo, but..." says Weissmann, a slim, bearded man whose enthusiasm nearly bounces out of his chair. "Butterflies get people in the door. And once they're in, they'll pet the big cockroach."

Weissmann really got the bug as a biology student at the University of Colorado. Soon he was assistant curator of the insect collection at the university museum. Before heading off to CSU for a doctorate in entomology, Weissmann started the Bugmobile, a zoo on wheels that visits schools and libraries.

Still, he wanted something more.
In 1988, Weissmann began to visit the handful of butterfly houses around the U.S. and Canada and decided to open his own. With help from other scientists, friends and a woman named Rachel Williams, who would eventually become his wife, Weissmann secured five acres of land (previously confiscated in the savings-and-loan scandal) from the City of Westminster and convinced three banks to put up some cash.

He borrowed money from his parents and sank a $400,000 personal loan into the project with the understanding that once the pavilion opened, he would work there as curator for the next twenty-some years for a salary of about $48,000, which would allow him to pay back the loan.

But Weissmann rues the day he listened to lawyers on the board of directors who said he should resign as board president because, as a pavilion employee, his status on the board was a conflict of interest. Weissmann's wife, the pavilion's education director, and his mother, an avid volunteer, would remain on the board--for a while.

The day Weissmann resigned from the board, "we went from running the place to being zookeepers," says Richard Cowan, a fellow bug geek who was operations manager at the pavilion and is now Weissmann's full-time business partner. "While we were out playing, the business side took over."

Whereas Weissmann and Cowan drew up plans to expand and improve the pavilion's insect exhibits, the board wanted to sink money into an expensive outdoor awning and tables for visiting picnickers, Cowan says. "Ninety percent of the attraction of the place is the live animals," he says. "But the few businesspeople involved started to get greedy. They wanted to make it Disneyland. They put us pretty low on the totem pole."

When Weissmann begged the management to let him build an army-ant exhibit, he was told no. As it turned out, the exhibit's debut would have coincided with the release of the two animated movie hits Antz and A Bug's Life.

Weissmann clashed with the pavilion's new CEO, former "Always Buy Colorado" director Patrick Duran, who eventually fired him. Weissmann has sued Duran and the Butterfly Pavilion for wrongful dismissal and for the return of his $400,000 loan. After Duran's resignation last fall, auditors moved in to look at the books. They discovered that payments on a $4.8 million loan had been left out of the budget and that the pavilion was expected to spend $300,000 more than it made.

Those problems have been cleared up, and the organization now employs a full-time accounting staff, says Deb Hruby, the pavilion's associate director. Attendance has steadily increased and last year surpassed the 270,000 mark. The pavilion's new curator has added thirty new species to the conservatory, and later this month the board of directors will decide what exhibits it will add with the $3 million in Butterfly Pavilion bonds issued last year, Hruby says. "Bugs," she adds, "are very hot right now."

Zoos and museums can--and must--evolve if they're to remain interesting to the public. Even a well-intentioned board of directors, however, "should not be telling the experts what to do," Cowan says. He points to a bee-colony exhibit that he built for the Butterfly Pavilion; since his departure, many of the bees have died and lie at the bottom of a glass-enclosed honeycomb. When he and Weissmann left, he says, they took their expertise, blueprints for expansion and a good number of faithful volunteers with them.

Weissmann's advice to the couple who founded Ocean Journey: "Don't let go of the reins." But, of course, they already have. The Flemings both resigned their positions on the board to take full-time jobs at Ocean Journey.

"The pavilion was like a child to me," explains Weissmann, who says his decision to sue was a difficult one. "How could I go out there and kill my own child, even though it's become a rebellious kid? When you see your child going out in its own direction--even if it's the wrong one--there's little you can do.

"A year ago, when I was fired, I thought my life was over," he says. "I slept late in the morning, and I couldn't sleep at night. I thought I was retired at 37. If I'd had my choice, I would have spent the rest of my career at the Butterfly Pavilion."

Today Weissmann and Cowan have set up shop in a Northglenn industrial park. Their fledgling company, Kallima Consultants, is named for an iridescent blue butterfly whose wings resemble an autumn leaf when closed. The two men help zoos and butterfly houses around the world set up small, individual displays--Hercules beetle exhibits, honeybee farms and the like. But their new dream, as one might expect, is much, much bigger:

A micro-zoo!
Weissmann and Cowan want to create the next generation of bug zoos, where insects live in a natural environment that visitors can touch, smell and experience. No longer would a tarantula be placed in a tank or behind glass; it would live on a tree, its native habitat. Bugs living in a desert exhibit filled with sand and real plants would stay within their assigned range with the help of some kind of invisible border: a moat, a high-powered stream of air, or a yet-to-be-invented gizmo. "In a micro-zoo, the insects have to fit into a story line," says Weissmann, who calls the Butterfly Pavilion and most other bug zoos "a hodgepodge of gee-whiz exhibits."

Their large, whitewashed work space, a former photo studio, has become the scientists' lab. The room is kept warm and humid for Kallima's giant crickets and cockroaches; an iguana takes a sun bath under a heat lamp. Weissmann and Cowan plan to spend the next two years tinkering with the technology that could put their high-tech bug haven on the map. "Eighty percent of the world's animals are invertebrates," says Weissmann. "We have over one million species to try out."

He and Cowan are crunching the numbers for a possible micro-zoo in D.C., Phoenix, California--or Denver. But this time around, it will be Weissmann and Cowan's baby, for real. No board of directors, no nonprofit squabbling--just two guys and a zillion ideas.