How Do You Train a Butterfly? The Same Way You Train an Orthopedic Surgeon!

Photo courtesy of

Ken Ramirez, a world-renowned animal trainer, was offered quite the challenge. In the midst of some tall buildings in London, a botanical specialty group had built a large garden—a garden that was home to thousands of butterflies of varying species, as well as many other types of flora and fauna. Its purpose: to show the “symbiotic relationship between plants and animals,” wrote Ramirez, describing the task ahead.

“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 flew from one part of the garden to the other.”

They wouldn’t just fly willy-nilly, mind you. The idea was to design and implement a plan to train more than 10,000 butterflies to traverse the garden, on cue, in unison. Now if someone offered me an assignment that seemed like an impossibility, I’d at least think long and hard about it.

But the fact that Ramirez hadn’t ever worked with butterflies before and knew little about their sensory mechanisms didn’t deter him at all. Ensured help from the group’s butterfly experts, he enthusiastically agreed. ”What a unique training opportunity!,” he wrote.

Key to the plan’s success was knowing what and how the butterflies were fed—and how often. And who knew that butterflies could be bullies? Ramirez learned that they were highly territorial, and prone to inter-species warfare over their locales: they were already occupying three different spaces in the garden.

He determined that by using various types of food and different sounds for the three groups, he could enhance the original plan by training “different groups to fly at different times.”

For the details, please read Ramirez’s account.  He describes the breathtaking, successful dress rehearsal, as the symphonic music swelled—and first the red and orange butterflies took off and flew in unison, landing on one 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. Just as the second group settled, close to 5,000 butterflies of multiple colors…fluttered over my head, settling into their trees and bushes far behind me. There were tears in my eyes, and I was speechless…With the addition of the music, the butterflies appeared to undulate to the rhythm of the music—it was incredible!”

Though Ramirez found this an extraordinary experience, he says: “I always teach that training is the same, and works equally well, for all species, ‘whether training an earthworm or a Harvard graduate!’”

What’s the common methodology? Here I owe a debt of gratitude to my younger daughter, a highly regarded professional dog trainer who from the very start of her career has stressed that positive reinforcement—and avoiding coercion, intimidation, and physical punishment—are the most humane and most successful ways to train dogs and other living beings.

My daughter was recently telling me about the work of Karen Pryor, who revolutionized animal training, including training large animals. When I expressed interest in the topic, she graciously did a search that yielded the information in this post. (I realize the butterflies hardly qualify as large animals, but I found that story irresistible.)

I stress that both my daughter and I would rather see animals in the wild than in cages, but we also recognize that there are good zoos doing good works, including conservation education and prevention of species extinction.

We won’t be looking at earthworms here, but I’d like to introduce you to some fascinating work being done with marine mammals, nonhuman primates, tigers, river otters, and orthopedic surgeons.

You read that right: They may not all be Harvard graduates, but some orthopedic surgeons are being trained in accordance with Karen Pryor’s discoveries—the same principles that Ramirez uses.

In the 1960s, Pryor began working with those wonderful creatures, dolphins, in Sea Life Park in Hawaii, which her husband had developed. Her approach evolved from Pavlov’s work with dogs (classical conditioning), and B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning, based on rewards and punishment.

Photo courtesy of

But importantly, Pryor found some of the training she observed abusive, so she went in a different direction.

She took the idea of food as a reward and added a sound to it: at first, a whistle. As she said in an interview on NPR’s Hidden Brain:

“The whistle is the signal that, at this very instant, you’re doing absolutely the right thing, so you’re going to get a prize…the identification for the learner…that acoustic message, whatever form it comes in, is actually a thrill.”

Pryor then employed the clicker that is now the cornerstone of a great deal of animal training. Between food rewards and clickers, the wonders take place.

We all know about the marine mammals that have been trained to perform. But thanks to Pryor, they, and their counterparts in other species, are being trained to participate in their medical care.

The positive reinforcement techniques she employed, Ken Ramirez has written,

“minimized or eliminated the use of coercion and punishment to gain the animal’s cooperation and created a trusting relationship between the keeper or trainer and the animal…As these relationships grew, the types of medical behaviors that could be trained also grew.”

So through patient and persistent training, killer whales (now verboten in marine shows), walruses, sea lions, and penguins have been taught to calmly present themselves and accept the needles necessary to take blood samples from them.

They learn to urinate on cue to provide urine samples, to exhale onto a plate to provide cultures from their airways, and even to ensure the effectiveness of eye drops and ear drops by keeping their heads above water long enough for the drugs to be absorbed.

Nonhuman primates have been similarly trained to accept such medical procedures, thereby reducing the incidence of injuries to handlers and stress on the animals by encouraging “a human-animal relationship that is based on trust rather than fear,” according to an article published by the Animal Welfare Institute.

This is, indeed, true of all animals so trained. Studies have actually shown a drop in the animals’ blood cortisol levels, indicating reduced anxiety.

Picture a baboon calmly offering his arm through a porthole in his cage to receive an injection. Or a female gorilla who has been providing urine samples for years while sitting on a potty. “She is so committed,” the author wrote,” that occasionally, she would go and get a drink of water when asked for a sample at a time when her bladder was empty.”

Now that’s commitment! Makes you question the phrase “dumb animals,” doesn’t it?

It’s clear that such techniques improve the animals’ welfare. And it should also be clear that they make the lives of the trainers and handlers much more interesting, safer, and less tense.

Here are links to several videos I really enjoyed; I think you will too.

River otter preps for ultrasounds. (Cincinnati Zoo.) “It may look like the trainer in this video is just having fun giving high fives and belly rubs, but there is a good reason that the otters have been taught these and other behaviors.” (You can skip the ad and go right to the starring cutie.)

Photo courtesy of

Dental care for gorillas. “Dental care is just as important for gorillas as it is for humans!” (Santa Barbara Zoo.)

The tiger-turned-pussy cat, or what I imagine might be called: “Do you need this for some reason?” (Copenhagen Zoo) To learn what “this” is, you must watch the brief video to the end!

And now we turn to training the species known as homo sapiens, specifically, that subgroup called orthopedic surgeons. For years, Martin Levy, MD, who directs the residency program for orthopedic surgery at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, has successfully used clickers in agility training his border collies.


“Over time,” he told Scientific American writer Lindsey Konkel, “I started to realize that we had better tools for training our dogs than our residents.” So, Konkel writes, “Levy decided to use these tools to help new doctors learn the tricks of the trade.”

The “tricks’ were the basic skills that orthopedic surgeons needed: “tying knots, positioning surgical instruments, and handling power tools.”

Levy sought out Karen Pryor to help him develop a program leading to mastery of these techniques. As the residents accomplished tasks that had been broken down step by step, their performance was noted by the instructor’s marking the event with “a click, the flick of a flashlight, or simply the word ‘good’ spoken in a neutral tone,” Konkel observes.

Others have pointed out that this kind of training removes the emotional component, so the effort is strictly on task mastery, not worries about approval, failure, or other complicating factors. This has upended what Levy said was a traditional teaching method of criticizing residents for mistakes, rather than noting their success.

“It’s true that a clicker cannot inspire or play the role of a mentor,” says Shankar Vedantam, host of NPR’s Hidden Brain. “…And yet the clicker, when it is the right tool, can fix one of the most detrimental parts of the teacher-student relationship—when students start to care more about getting praise and avoiding criticism than learning.”

(This Hidden Brain episode, “When Everything Clicks: The Power of Judgment-Free Learning,” is accessible in both audio and transcript.)

From all the above—from butterflies to baboons to otters to tigers to orthopedic surgeons—it seems obvious that positive reinforcement and patient attention to marking tasks reap large benefits. Equally important, physical punishment and harsh treatment appear to be counterproductive.

To bring all of this closer to home, I’ll quote my daughter’s emphasis on the positive, as she describes “dog-friendly” training:

“‘Dog-Friendly'” is sometimes confused with permissive, but that is inaccurate. It means focusing on how to teach our dogs how to get it right, instead of focusing on how to punish them for making mistakes.

It also means being aware of our dogs’ limits, so that we can do our best to set them up for success. We often unwittingly put our dogs in situations they don’t have the skills or ability to handle, and then get angry and frustrated with them for acting out.

In my opinion, just as much–if not more–emphasis should be on adjusting what the human side of the equation is doing.”

And, notably,  positive reinforcement also works in training children, especially those with learning or behavioral difficulties.


As always, I’m eager for your comments—your reactions, opinions, stories. (You can also let me know your opinion about this post by clicking on the stars below: from left to right, click star 1 for awful; star 5 for excellent. WordPress folks have the option to “like” this post further below.)


I dedicate this post to the memory of my sister, who died on December 29th, 2018—just 43 days after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Her stoicism and bravery in the face of the devastating diagnosis, and her determination to live each day well, were extraordinary. She loved nature, reveled in identifying the birds in the vicinity of her Florida home, worried about the fate of the Manatees off the Florida coast, and cared gently and lovingly for her little Shih Tzu. She was very supportive of my blog, and I like to think she would have especially enjoyed this post. The loss is profound.


40 thoughts on “How Do You Train a Butterfly? The Same Way You Train an Orthopedic Surgeon!

  1. This really is an eye-opening post. I have seen so many fictional medical TV programs that show trainees being ridiculed for the smallest error rather than acknowledge the things done right. I bring this up because it seems to be a part of the medical learning culture to train in such a way, in real life. I’d rather teach with kindness to produce a better surgeon, a better writer, or a trained seal.

    I acknowledge the loss of your sister. You’re description of her paints a picture of a person the world will miss.
    Thank you for the post and the dedication.


    1. Hi, Darnell—

      So glad you appreciated the post; I assumed from your writings that the emphasis on kindness would appeal to you. I’m glad you underscored the picture of medical training from TV, which appears to be true to life.

      I would love to have your perspective on other things I write going forward. I am a fan of your work, and I share many of your observations.

      And thanks so much for acknowledging my sister’s death. She was an educator who began as a learning disabilities specialist and became a middle school principal. We learned at her funeral what a huge impact she had on both teachers and students. So yes, I believe you’re right that she’s someone the world will miss.



    1. Darnell,

      This is just an FYI. Because it’s Martin Luther King Day, I thought I’d point out that I have a series of three posts on “How Do We Talk About Race in America?” (Part 1 evoked the most discussion.) And on the subject of kindness, I posted “Mister Rogers: Where Are You When We Need You?,” which was my sister’s favorite (and is also appropriate as a tribute to Dr. King, I believe, because he certainly stressed love and kindness).

      If at any point you have the time/inclination to explore them, I just wanted you to know about them. You can find them under “Blog.” But no pressure here–truly!



  2. Hi Annie,
    Informative and fun post. The videos are really good and add to the quality of the blog,
    The training techniques described by your daughter are now the basis of what Veterinary behaviorists (yes, this is now a Board certified specialty in Vet med) are recommending to train and correct behavioral problems in animals. This is a huge difference in training techniques that were in vogue not a real long time ago and still are used by some today.
    Interesting to see what animals will do when given favorable rewards and assumingly trust the trainers. The video of the tiger getting a blood draw from it’s tail while fully awake is a good example. Maybe the surgeons can learn to be so gentle.

    You do touch on the very controversial subject of the presence and function of zoos (and water parks). You could have a whole other blog on this. Compelling arguments on both sides- for and against,

    Sorry about the passing of your sister. Very warm tribute,



    1. Hi, donthedoctor–

      It’s good to get a thumbs up from a professional! Also interesting to learn that there’s a board-certified specialty in behaviorism in Vet med. As to some still using harsh training methods, my daughter can attest to that. She has said that despite all the evidence to the contrary, there remain those who emphatically disagree that these approaches are both detrimental and unnecessary.

      Interesting that you singled out the tiger video (giving away my little secret in the post): that one is my favorite. The sight of that majestic animal so calmly sitting there moved and delighted me, as it so profoundly challenges our basic assumptions.

      Your suggestion about a blog on the pros and cons of zoos and marine parks is thought-provoking. I do intend to continue exploring animal behavior and the human-animal bond, so perhaps…

      Finally, thank you for your kind words about my sister’s death.



    1. Hi, there–

      Glad you loved the videos, but I certainly empathize with your ambivalence. As I state in the post, we want to see animals roaming free in their native habitats. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that in “good” zoos–those that are really dedicated to the animals and are working to prevent species extinction and to educate the public about conservation–there is plenty of room for the animals to roam around, and they are in the confined areas only for limited time periods and specific reasons, such as for the medical care shown in the videos.



  3. Annie — what a beautiful post. I find I tend to save your writing for early morning, before the household stirs, cup of coffee in hand, sun rising . . . and this post fit that mood perfectly! As you know, I marvel at your clarity of expression. How do you do that, woman?! I appreciate the sequential build of an argument (so to speak), how you take the reader by the hand and proceed, one foot in front of the next. And of course there is the content. I always learn here, am inspired to learn more (and you kindly provide the links), and find that I come away thinking about butterflies, music, dogs, clickers, and above kindness. As a parent who always worries about the quality of my parenting, and no matter that my sons are grown, i think how useful this post would have been to me personally say twenty-five years ago?! But it’s never to late to improve, I guess, and your wisdom points the way.

    So very sorry to learn about your sister’s passing. I’m sure she would have loved this.


    1. Denise,

      I am humbled by your comment—and so delighted that you enjoyed this post, which I loved putting together—with my daughter as researcher extraordinaire.

      Thanks so much, too, for your kind words about my sister’s passing.


  4. Annie, my good friend, this post made me smile a great deal. As a dog owner and as a former educator, I can personally attest to the validity of the theme of your post. Positive reinforcement has worked for me when dealing with both species. I used to quote my famous passage from Machiavelli’s, “The Prince” when addressing people at leadership conferences; “It’s better to be feared than loved.” This always resulted in spirited discussions. Most often the consensus was the antithesis of Machiavelli’s conclusion.
    Thanks for publishing this article. My two dogs, Ollie and Mellie, will demonstrate their approval of the article when I give them an extra treat when we go for the next walk!!
    Again, I want to offer my condolences for your loss. It’s great when a family member is also your best friend. Unfortunately, that’s often times not the case.


    1. Hi, Steve—

      I’m glad the post made you smile—and very glad for Ollie and Mellie’s lick-smacking approval! I like the phrase that positive reinforcement has worked for you “when dealing with both species,” and I appreciate your reference to discussions of Machiavelli’s views—definitely a “first” on this blog! Thanks, too, for your condolences.



  5. Annie :Thank you for that wonderful image of butterflies in flight. Just what was needed to get us through a long, frigid winter.


    1. Hi, Barbara–

      You’re most welcome! It’s a wonderful image, isn’t it? Easy to imagine the symphonic music and those undulating, colorful butterflies. (Almost enough to take our minds off their bullying characteristics…)



  6. Once again, I am offering a comment provided to me by Anonymous, who chooses to remain so because of her position as a vice president of her company. Though she’s risen far, when I think about how special she is, I can’t help wondering what she might have accomplished in life if she’d had positive reinforcement instead of the opposite. I believe her words will resonate with others, unfortunately. Here’s her comment:

    Went back and re-read this…. It was a wonderful take on how compassionate training can make all the difference. I feel like my early and then frequent negative experiences with formal education have created deep scars and fear of me going back to finish college. Those fears continue to make learning a struggle for me on the tennis court (fear of failing and negative feedback even though I have a kind and patient coach.)

    When learning anything new I have a tremendous amount of resistance. I put up huge barriers–almost steeling myself for expected criticism, harsh correction, or worse, the “why don’t you understand? Everyone else has already figured this out.”

    Anonymous is a woman of color. Who knows to what extent that has shaped her experiences? I have a strong sense it’s been at least a factor. Regardless, I’m pretty sure the feelings she expresses are shared by people from many different backgrounds. It is clearly regrettable to consider how much talent–like hers–may have been dampened by the wrong kind of training and the wrong attitude on the part of educators toward those they train,



  7. Very interesting, informative and well written article.

    My condolences to you on the death of your sister from pancreatic cancer this past December 29th.

    My own dad died from colon cancer back on June 16th 2010.

    An event it turns out I never did recover from as my current doctor (since 2016) thinks that it is the primary cause of my clinical depression that I suffer from (which went undiagnosed for 6 years).

    I love the description of Ramirez’s work with butterflies.

    It reminds me of a lot of the work they do with butterflies at the Butterfly Gardens in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

    I have a lot of friends from Malaysia (who all started out as readers of my blog) who have written blog posts about those gardens that I’d definitely love to visit if I ever get the opportunity to visit Malaysia.

    Ramirez’s work with butterflies and an orchestra reminds me of a vampire novel chapter I wrote where one of my novel’s central characters Renfield R. Renfield (who is now a British Member of Parliament) had an opportunity to conduct the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra.

    He was to conduct Rossini’s William Tell Overture and Renfield’s particular touch was to have members of the orchestra wearing apples on their heads and when the Lone Ranger theme music started, they were to stand and a group of archers were to shoot the apples off their heads.

    Needless to say Renfield’s efforts weren’t as successful as Ramirez’s and the next day an ad in the Chicago Sun-Times put out a call for auditions for musicians to replace 90% of the positions in the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dracul—

      You are my new, very good friend, and I’m delighted to have made your acquaintance via The Little Mermaid’s (virtual) Tea Party.

      Thank you for your condolences, and please accept mine—for both the loss of your father and the ensuing burden it placed on you psychologically. I hope your condition is manageable.

      And thanks for your kind words and “like” for this post. I do love the butterfly story—even though it turns out butterflies never seem to learn to “share and share alike.”

      Now, despite my protestations about all things Dracula, I must look at some samples of your creativity. Discussing Plato with Harvey the Rabbit drew me in, and Renfield’s adventures have heightened my interest.

      Take good care,


      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you very much.

        Yes, my doctor has seem to have found the right antidepressant for me which is a good thing.
        Between that and my continuously writing, it’s helping me cope.

        I’ve found writing to be very therapeutic.

        I read a few years ago that J.R.R. Tolkien conceived the plot for The Lord of The Rings while fighting in the trenches of World War I.

        Conceiving this entire mythology in his mind was the mechanism that helped him cope with the horrors he was having to endure daily.

        About the same time I read it was in the same month that I was diagnosed with clinical depression by the doctor and in that same month two different readers of my blog commented on two different occasions, “You’re not only conceiving and writing a novel. You’re conceiving and writing an entire mythology.”

        You’re right about the Little Mermaid. ☺

        It’s wonderful how her tea parties are able to bring people together.


      2. Dracul,

        I did a good deal of writing and editing about mental health issues some time ago, and one thing that was so disconcerting was the stigma that made it difficult for people to talk about their conditions. Perhaps that’s lessened, but it’s still with us, so I commend you for so openly discussing your depression. I think we all gain when more and more people feel equally comfortable talking about mental health conditions and physical health conditions. Your noting that you seem to have found the right antidepressant may give hope to others who haven’t yet reached that point.

        As to your finding writing very therapeutic, that clearly puts you in the category of many of our finest writers. Here’s to your evolving mythology!


        Liked by 1 person

      3. Hi Annie,

        I am slowly working my way through my emails (which I seem to have gotten a whole ton of today) and just read this notification now.

        Hopefully the new Comment to be Approved notification is somewhere above and your comment hopefully WP didn’t put in Spam.

        I’ll check for it. ☺



  8. Training butterflies. How marvelous. Isn’t the world a constant wonder? Anne, you mention Karen Pryor’s groundbreaking work with captive dolphins. In one of Pryor’s books, I forget which, she talks about how animals — dolphins, in this case — train humans, too. She tells a very funny story about watching a junior trainer try to get a captive dolphin to jump through a hoop. The dolphin would almost do it, almost do it, and each time the dolphin almost did it, the trainer would lean out a little farther over the water to make the task a little easier for the dolphin. This went on and on until, finally, the trainer fell into the tank. I may have some of the details wrong, but that was the outcome — and the lesson: When working with other intelligent beings who possess a keen senses of humor, the training goes both ways.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gini,

      Welcome to annieasksyou! That is indeed a wonderful story with a valuable lesson: we underestimate these clever beings at our own peril (or in this case, at least, loss of dignity). Thanks so much for sharing it.

      I am happily now exploring your lovely blog,, which I heartily recommend to anyone who cares about nature and the environment.



  9. WOW..I I thought that was really a wonderful insight into learning and teaching.Most of my early years as an othhopedic resident and practicing surgeon had a large fear factor concerning making mistakes..Society is not very forgiving when it comes to medical care. The punishment has always been malpractice suits or internal shame or feelings of failure We personally own our errors of delayed diagnoses. I think it is beginning to change change to a more educational system with more positive rewards My two black labs, Atlas and Einstein, know well that treats really run the show. I think my wife also knows that
    At any rate, wonderful writing and thought process, great sorry about your sister. I don’t think I knew her when we were growing up

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hooray! Validation from my friend the orthopedic surgeon. I hope your colleague at Montefiore gains ever-widening support for his enlightened views.

      Which reminds me that I should continually emphasize that this post was a collaboration with my daughter: it never would have come together without both her enlightened views and her research.

      Atlas and Einstein—clearly powerhouses of strength and intellect—have learned their lessons well—as has your obviously very clever wife.

      Thanks for your kind words, and for your condolences. If there was anything to soften the blow of my sister’s death, it was that she wasn’t severely ill for long and suffered no pain.

      Cheers, Annie


  10. Thank you, Annie. So much food for thought! I have found that positive reinforcement, encouragement and praise work wonders with my son who has behavioral challenges. I only wish that more parents and teachers embraced this concept. I will share your essay far and wide.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Tia—and welcome to annieasksyou! Can you give an example of how your son responded to positive reinforcement—anything that other parents might successfully use?


  11. Dear Annie, So now I am a follower and a fan! Love reading your very thoughtful and thought-provoking blogs, And it’s wonderful to see and appreciate the conversations you have initiated and nurtured with people everywhere. I am so sorry to hear of your dear sister’s passing. I hope the lifetime of friendship and love you shared provides a measure of comfort, peace, and strength. My sister Jill died 2 years ago just a few weeks after being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Miss her dearly. Thank you for providing a voice that reflects the caring and humanity that are so desperately needed today. All the best, Jeff

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Jeff—

      I am delighted to welcome you to annieasksyou—and thanks so much for your kind words. I hope you’ll visit as often as you can and share your keen observations and perceptions. You may recognize some other commenter’s names from time to time.

      And so we’ve shared the painful loss of a sibling. I’m so sorry about your sister’s passing. But in both instances, they were spared the dreadful prolongation of their disease. That knowledge gave us comfort; I hope you felt the same.

      It’s terrific to be reconnected, Jeff!



  12. I used to raise Guide Dog Puppies for the Blind. (Two successful working dogs to loving homes, a third we were lucky to keep.) Your daughter’s positive training regime resonates with ours. We were to raise happy, self-confident but obedient dogs – and not even allowed to say “no” much less yell. Our GD flunkie is calm, well-behaved, and a joy in our lives. If only I had this training when my children were young! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Cinda,

      So interesting that you raised guide dogs for the blind. Important work that sounds like fun. I always wished I could get a flunkie, but the lists are years long.

      I, too, wish I’d had this knowledge when my girls were young.

      This is one of my favorite posts—in part because it was a collaboration with my daughter. I’m delighted that it draws readers so often even though it’s more than two years old. Can you tell me how you happened to read it?


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