A South Texas butterfly conservatory said it will temporarily close after being warned that it could be a target of a nearby rally headlined by conspiracy theorists and allies of former President Donald Trump.
The National Butterfly Center announced Friday that it would shutter until Sunday due to “credible threats” regarding activities planned during the three-day We Stand America rally in the neighboring border town of McAllen. The closure comes one week after a right-wing congressional candidate from Virginia accused the center’s staff of being “OK with children being trafficked and raped.”
The sanctuary’s director, Marianna Treviño-Wright, said she was warned by an acquaintance, former Republican state lawmaker Aaron Peña, that “she should be armed at all times or out of town this weekend” because the rally included a “Trump Train-style caravan to the border” that would likely make a stop at the butterfly center. She said she was advised that both she and the sanctuary were targets.
Peña did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“We simply cannot risk the safety and lives of our staff and visitors during this dangerous time,” the sanctuary said, noting that it would pay its staff during the unexpected closure.
The rally will focus on border security and is set to feature former Trump administration officials Michael Flynn, a QAnon supporter who served as national security adviser, and Thomas Homan, who was an acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Other QAnon-supporting, pro-Trump personalties are also expected to attend, including Mark Finchem, the Arizona state lawmaker running for Arizona secretary of state.
One right-wing group whose post was featured on the event website told supporters that “the McAllen event is not just a rally. It’s a boot camp with a full day of how-to training, to push back against and defeat the Marxists.”
The National Butterfly Center, a 100-acre nature preserve located just north of the U.S.-Mexico border in Mission, Hildago County, has become an unlikely combatant in a war with Trump allies.
The center’s parent group, the North American Butterfly Association, sued the Trump administration in 2017 for beginning border wall preparations without conducting the appropriate environmental assessments. The conservationists have since been embroiled in legal standoff with both the Trump administration and later with We Build The Wall, an organization that claimed to be crowdfunding private donations to build the border wall, including a section near the nature preserve.
The butterfly center said We Build The Wall founder Brian Kolfage and Steve Bannon, a chief strategist in the Trump White House, attempted to boost fundraising efforts by attacking the sanctuary and Treviño-Wright with defamatory and malicious lies in late 2019 and early 2020.
Both men were charged in August 2020 for allegedly using the group’s donations for personal expenses.
In 2019, Kolfage assailed the butterfly park’s staff on Twitter for pushing back against his efforts to build the wall, calling them “freaks” and saying the sanctuary was a “sham.” He accused staff of ignoring human trafficking and seemed to suggest that the sanctuary’s operators might have been involved in some kind of international butterfly-smuggling scheme.
In one tweet, he wrote: “The only butterflies we saw were swarming a decomposing body surrounded by tons of rotting trash left behind by illegals.”
The sanctuary said it faced online harassment as a result of the posts.
Police were called to the butterfly center last week after a Virginia congressional candidate, Kimberly Lowe, and her friend had an altercation with staff.
Lowe is currently traveling around the southern border and sharing videos of Border Patrol, migrants being apprehended and processed, and sections of wall. She said in one video that she is learning about it so “we can save America and stop the drugs that are crossing the border and destroying our families.”
According to an affidavit provided by Treviño-Wright, her son Nicholas Wright interrupted her during a conference call at around 1:30 p.m. on Jan. 21. He said that two women were trying to enter the preserve without paying admission “but wanted us to open up the gate for them to access the back 70 acres of the property, so they could go see ‘illegals crossing on rafts.’”
“He said one of the women claimed to be running for Congress and the other claimed to be with the Secret Service,” Treviño-Wright wrote.
Treviño-Wright said she looked up Lowe on Facebook and saw her videos from the border, then went to meet the women at reception and told them they were not welcome.
“At this point they started saying things like, ‘So, you’re not about keeping the illegals out?’ and ‘you are OK with children being raped,’ and the like,” she said in her affadavit. “They continued to say things like that as they moved toward the front door.”
Audio of the altercation provided and recorded by Treviño-Wright verifies this exchange, including that Lowe’s friend claimed she was a member of the Secret Service.
Lowe told HuffPost she had not suggested that Treviño-Wright was “involved with anything” and accused her of making things up. She said Treviño-Wright was “mentally ill” and that she had “verbally and physically assaulted us, stole my phone, kidnapped us, and tried to keep us from leaving, and filed a false police report.”
As the women stepped outside the front doors of the center, Treviño-Wright said, she noticed that Lowe was filming her and tried to stop her. She said she “panicked” because she, her children and the center had been threatened before after conservative figures posted photos of her.
“I moved to stop her from doing this, by knocking or taking away her phone and retreating inside the building to wait for the police,” Treviño-Wright said. “Then I was thrown to the ground.”
In the audio, a scuffle can be heard, including a woman’s voice saying, “You did not take my phone … get the fuck down, bitch.”
Lowe was livestreaming the end of the exchange to Facebook but later deleted the video.
In a livestream from her car later, Lowe told viewers that “this is what you have down here at the border with crazy freakin’ people who are OK with children being trafficked and raped. I was just assaulted at the butterfly center.” Lowe’s three children were in the back seat.
Treviño-Wright sent a copy of Lowe’s livestream to HuffPost. Lowe sent HuffPost the same video, but excluded the second half.
Treviño-Wright said she filed a report with the Mission Police Department and submitted recordings and signed affidavits from herself and her son.
HuffPost has contacted the Mission Police Department, McAllen Police Department, Hildago County Sheriff and Border Patrol for comment.