NOTE: This lengthy post continues to draw readers often nearly four years after its first appearance. I have a special attachment to it, as you’ll see if you have the time to read it in its entirety.
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.
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.)
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. (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.