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Guest Speaker: Ken Ramirez – The Butterfly Project

I’ve met Ken several times through IMATA. I first met him back in 2008 when I joined the first IMATA conference in my career. It has been quite a ride for me since. To mention that this year I will be serving as Vice President of IMATA. This gives me the honer to work right next to Ken Ramirez. As we al know he has done a lot for many of us if it has been the first steps in training or if it was the step what made you get there. As Ken mentioned to me in a conversation last year, one of his passions is conservation. He works with great people and conservationists to make projects happen but this doesn’t always come with flowers. See one of his stories about his latest project:

A Steep Price of Conservation

Ken Ramirez is the Executive Vice President and Chief Training Officer at Karen Pryor Clicker Training (KPCT). A trainer and consultant for nearly 40 years, Ken most recently served as the Executive Vice President, Animal Care and Training, at Chicago’s world-famous Shedd Aquarium. He is the author of several books and DVDs, including ANIMAL TRAINING: Successful Animal Management Through Positive Reinforcement, which has become required reading for many trainers in the zoological field.

 

The Butterfly Project

Ken Ramirez

Executive VP & Chief Training Officer

Karen Pryor Clicker Training

Reprinted from Karen Pryor Clicker Training web-site – May 2015

Can You Show us How to Train Butterflies?

I was asked to participate in a special project that I will refer to as the London Butterfly Project. A botanical specialty group in the UK has built a large garden that is designed to show the symbiotic relationship between plants and animals.  Each year this group sets up different gardens with different themes in different parts of the United Kingdom.  Their focus for 2015 is to demonstrate the role that butterflies have in certain ecosystems.  This project includes over 10,000 butterflies of many different species living in their garden, which is hidden among the tall buildings of London. The garden occupies a space that is larger than a football field.

The director of the project, Lucinda Bartholomew, had envisioned a fundraising gala presentation that would include an orchestra in the middle of the garden playing beautiful classical music while butterflies fly from one part of the garden to the other.  She had heard of me through a mutual friend and contacted me to ask whether I thought thousands of butterflies could be trained to fly on cue in unison from one location to another. I explained that I had never worked with butterflies and knew very little about their sensory mechanisms, but I imagined that if someone understood those things it should certainly be possible.  She then followed up with the question:

“Would you be interested in helping design and implement a training plan for our butterflies?”

I immediately said yes! Train thousands of butterflies to fly from point A to point B on cue, what a unique training opportunity!

Now that I said “Yes” . . . How do I do it?

I immediately began reading up on butterflies and sent a dozen questions to the group’s butterfly specialists.  Which of their senses are better, vision, hearing, smell, or something else?  What do you feed them?  How do you feed them?  How often do they eat?  Can you send me pictures of the garden?  Can you show me where you want them to start and to where you want them to fly?  The answers were varied, depending on the species. I also found that some of the questions about the capabilities of butterflies were still being studied by scientists and are not fully understood for every species.

I learned that some of the butterfly species are quite territorial and will compete and fight with other species for access to “their space”.  This worked to our advantage as the butterflies had already self-selected their preferred spaces and were living in three different parts of the garden.  Based on that information, combined with some other research, I proposed that we try to use a vibrating sub-sonic tone for one group of butterflies, a high pitched whistling tone for another group, and a flashing light for the last group.  Once I understood their goal, I felt that we could make a bigger impression if we could train different groups to fly at different times.  They loved the idea and we moved forward with that plan – hoping that at least one of the cues would work with one of the groups.

Day 1 – Training Begins!

We began by using large bowls of fruit, nectar, or a special liquid solution, depending on the species, and paired the selected cue (vibrating cathode, high pitched tone, or flashing light) with the immediate presentation of multiple bowls of the preferred food.  We started with 25 of us – staff, volunteers, and I spread out amongst the butterflies, with covered bowls placed next to the sources of the cue.  The moment the cue was turned on we all removed the covers to the bowls, which were spread out all over the areas where the butterflies were currently perched (is that what it’s called with butterflies, not so sure?)!  We then moved to the next group, pairing their unique cue with that group’s food. We repeated the process with the third group.

After about 25 minutes of feeding we turned off the repeating cue, removed the bowls, and left for two hours. We did this four times, and by the end of the first day the butterflies were beginning to fly to their food immediately upon presentation of the cue.

Day 2 – It’s Working!

So on day two we moved the bowls several meters away from where they had been placed on day one.  A majority of the butterflies made the short flight immediately!  This was going to work!  The team was amazed!  For a while, I pretended that I was not surprised.  After all, most people know that I always teach that training is the same and it works equally well for all species, “whether training an earthworm or a Harvard graduate!”  But I finally had to admit that even I was surprised at how well and how quickly it worked.  We were successfully training butterflies! 10,000 OF THEM, AT ONCE! (Well, maybe about 9,500 – there were still a few hold outs!)

Butterfly Bullies?

By the end of the second week we had approximated the majority of the butterflies nearly 75 meters.  We could have moved the first few groups the full 100 meters in this time frame, but we made smaller approximations because there were a handful of animals that did not learn it as quickly.  We took time to make the connection to the cue stronger for the stragglers – usually the less assertive of the butterflies.  We accomplished this by spreading the landing sites over a slightly larger area so that the less assertive butterflies did not have to compete for food bowl space with the “bullies” (who knew there were butterfly bullies?).  So far, we have reached a success rate with approximately 95% of the butterflies!

Putting it All to Music

On my last day the team surprised me. They had me sit in the middle of the garden and just watch. A speaker system played a beautifully orchestrated classical symphony piece.  About 45 seconds into the piece, the music began to swell, and right on cue all of the red and the orange colored butterflies took off from the bushes and trees to my left. I watched in awe as approximately 2,000 red and orange colors fluttered across the space in front of me. They did not move fast but they moved in unison, and the group was spread out over several meters. They undulated in a beautiful tight formation and landed on the far right side of the garden. Then there was another swell of music and about 2,500 purple and blue butterflies fluttered in a similar manner from the far left to another location on the far right. Then, just as the second group settled into their place, about 5,000 butterflies of multiple colors took off from a location across from me and fluttered straight toward me and over my head, settling into their trees and bushes far behind me. There were tears in my eyes, I was speechless!  I had been so much in the middle of the process I had yet to truly appreciate how beautiful this was – and with the addition of the music, they appeared to undulate to the rhythm of the music – it was incredible!

Final Approximations

Over the next 19 days, the team began approximating the flights later into the evening. Butterflies are diurnal and getting them to fly at night might be the biggest obstacle. But we added special lighting to the stadium and we gradually moved the sessions later and later into the evening.  The gala was a one-time event and on that evening, the air was still and the night was clear, conditions were perfect for the flights.  The performance went off without a hitch – it was a magical night. The entire performance was filmed by a British film crew for an upcoming documentary. I am thankful to the great team who worked so hard to help make this seemingly impossible task possible.  It is a reminder to all of us that what I always say to my students is absolutely true, “whether training an earth worm or a university graduate, we all learn the same way.” The laws of learning are universal.

I can now add Butterfly Trainer to my resume. That’s new, even for me!

Happy Training,

Ken

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