Butterfly Wranglers: Hands used for crime now nurturing a struggling species

Butterfly Wranglers: Hands used for crime now nurturing a struggling species

It’s the last thing that any of them ever thought they’d be doing behind bars.

“(I) called my dad and said I’m doing the butterflies and he was like, ‘what the heck?'” said Talon Cutler-Flinn, an inmate and one of the dozen or so butterfly wranglers at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

He’s been locked up over two years, for attempted murder, kidnapping and several assaults.

“Right now I’m looking at 33 years,” he said.

Behind the bars of the maximum security prison, however, his sentence is far from the longest. Fellow butterfly wrangler Anthony Viscussi, is in for life after his third strike.

“I get really overly aggressive,” he said. “This place is testosterone filled and I feed into that, but being here I’ve learned to channel it into something else.”

He said in being responsible for the care of over 800 Monarch caterpillars–soon to be chrysalis– it’s a calming therapy of sorts, one that helps him overcome his regret and other problems he’s working through.

“As they grow, I grow,” he said.

The monarch rearing program at the prison started back in 2012, in partnership with Washington State University and their entomology department. Researchers have helped the inmates learn to tag the monarchs, once they are butterflies. Then after being released, monarch watchers all across the west call in the tagged butterflies that they have seen, and that data helps better understand monarch migration patterns to be used in conservation.

Each year since 2012 researchers have brought in thousands of eggs for the inmates to raise through the full metamorphosis. This year, however, was the first year that the program was in doubt as monarch populations across the country have plummeted.

Monarchs are known for their thousands of mile long migrations, the populations in the west heading south to California and Mexico for the winter, before heading back north to lay their eggs.

This year, however, for the first time since the program began, it almost didn’t happen. Monarchs didn’t return to the region until very late in the season, and the two monarchs responsible for the 1,000 eggs brought to the prison were found all the way in Bend, Oregon.

“The inmates kept going Ms. Bly, Ms. Bly, have you heard anything yet, it’s almost August,” said Cathy Bly, a correctional mental health counselor at the prison who oversees the monarch program.

In addition to the scientific benefit of the program, there are the impacts on the inmates as well, both good and painful.

“They give you something to care about, they give you self-worth,” said Cutler-Flinn.

“They keep me from committing suicide,” said Adam Jennings, who’s in for murder. “They fly away and we never see them again, but at least they get to fly away.”

Others in the program echo their sentiment, saying they have learned about themselves through the monarch rearing, finding a time to think about what they have done and how they will change once free from prison.

Men with violent pasts, helping give a future to a struggling species.