‘Monarch Maven’s’ journey to save monarch butterflies, helping Decker Lake inmates along the way
Aug 05, 2019 11h44
By Jennifer J Johnson
Salt Lake City resident Rachel Taylor partnered with the Initiative To Bring Science To The Incarcerated—INSPIRE—program’s Allison Anholt to teach inmates to cultivate then monitor a monarch butterfly ecosystem on the campus of the Decker Lake Correctional Facility. (Jennifer J. Johnson/City Journals)
By Jennifer J. Johnson | [email protected]
“Providing habitat to help them succeed.”
The phrase is uttered by a University of Utah biologist, informing a group of young men about how their efforts may help tiny monarch butterfly eggs grow 2,000 times their current size and metamorphose from barely noticeable into, ultimately, majestic butterflies.
The phrase, however, could just as easily apply to the scientist’s efforts—to not only educate, but to enliven and inspire this group of young men, aged 16-21, who are wards of the state, juveniles at the Decker Lake Correctional Facility in West Valley City.
But all this gets ahead of where the story began.
The lovely Butterfly Lady and her own migration
“Monarch Maven” or “Butterfly Lady” Rachel Taylor lives by the U of U, proximate to Hogle Zoo. She and her spouse regularly journey to Mexico to observe monarch migrations.
She talks the talk, walks the walk, and if she could, would likely fly the 6,000-mile round-trip migration monarch butterflies make to-and-from Canada and Mexico.
Five years ago, she started to notice the lack of monarch butterflies. This was a stark contrast to her youth, in what was once “rural Utah” (now Lehi), where butterflies were a delightful given, a sure sign of summertime.
Taylor began studying monarchs, learning of their potential for extinction. She was named an official research associate for the 501c3 Southwest Monarch Study, “a volunteer position I’m proud of,” she says.
She began to cultivate milkweed, a plant that monarchs are particularly drawn to, for laying their eggs. Once the eggs hatch, milkweed provides ideal nutrition for the larvae. The young feast on the milkweed, a plant which nature’s protective hand designed to be unpalatable, even poisonous, to would-be predators.
Obsessed, Taylor let her house become as consumed as she was. Two 6-foot tables, a window seat, and all the chairs possible crowded to sunlit spots, becoming milkweed-growing areas. A pollinator garden became the priority in her well-manicured lawn. Solo Cups were no longer for drinking, but for growing.
Her passion was getting in the way of her day job, as partner and executive search consultant for the Salt Lake office of top-25 global headhunting firm Global Recruiters.
The world-class executive recruiter needed to recruit help—for herself.
The U of U’s Initiative to Bring Science Programs to the Incarcerated proved to be an excellent ally.
The apt acronym—INSPIRE—brings science to prisons through lectures, workshops, and community-based conservation projects at correctional facilities in Utah.
The monarch initiative was awarded a $1,000 grant to purchase the materials to grow the milkweed to foster monarchs.
INSPIRE’s creativity and connections then delivered what was still missing—the site to host the project.
The Utah Department of Corrections turned out to be what some may consider the surprising answer. They had a greenhouse at one of their facilities and space in the inmate outdoor courtyards that sounded like just the ticket for Taylor’s monarch-enhancing crusade.
To make sure the planting was done correctly horticulturist James Young of the Fruit Heights-based Grand Prismatic Seed Company oversaw the planting project at the Decker Lake Correctional Facility.
Transformation on all levels
The monarch-propagating team worked amongst the inmates, who got the hands-on experience of helping transform poor-quality dirt patches in the prison yard, into butterfly incubators, which will, hopefully, yield the flying poetry.
At least six times a year, Taylor and INSPIRE Program Manager Allison Anholt journey to work with the inmates of Decker Lake and tend to the plants and the butterflies-in-the-making—their symbolic project a way to teach youth about not just how to help the monarchs, but to also, in doing so, help themselves.
The educational portion of the session takes place in the chapel, then migrates outdoors to where the inmates have planted the milkweed and are now learning how to recognize the monarchs’ growth.
Anholt, herself just a stone’s throw in age from the Decker inmates, spent a year of her life working as a conservation biologist. She shares stories of traveling the world and getting paid for it.
The message of opportunity through science is one that resonates. She talks about loftier careers, everything from becoming a Ph.D. in the science of butterflies—a lepidopterist—to becoming a specialist who helps remediate land.
She asks to field questions about the potential careers available in the field. An arm shoots up immediately—“Which one pays the most?”
Young men in hopeful chrysalis phase
A few minutes later, the men adjourn to the garden. Taylor and Anholt explore the milkweed plants with them, reminding them of signs of monarch egg activity.
Of working in the garden, 18-year-old “Lord” (not his real name) describes the experience as “euphoric” and “a good way to break the monotony of your cell.” These few minutes—less than an hour spent indoors and outdoors, combined—represent “a little taste of freedom.”
He says working in the garden and monitoring the monarchs-in-the-making is a “good way to earn restitution.”
Lord seems genuine when he indicates interest in future pursuit of a wildlife-restoration career. Lord has remembered, almost word for word, Anholt’s description of the opportunity and is able to articulately discuss its impact and possibilities.
Another inmate, 16-year-old “JR” (also not his real name) says he appreciates the time Taylor and Anholt spend with them, returning visit after visit, to Decker Lake, and considers being chosen to spend more time working with the milkweed outdoors and the greenhouse “an honor.”
On the plants, the horizon, and up in the air—on solid scientific ground
Taylor and Anholt have committed to spending five years with the Utah Corrections program.
With that well underway, Taylor is focused on preaching the gospel of milkweed.
“I want to ensure we can continue growing milkweed and providing it to city/county/state organizations and provide seedlings to them for free, to help sustain the monarch population,” she says.
Recent success along these lines is the monarch ecosystem Taylor helped cultivate at Salt Lake City’s Fairmont Park in Sugar House.
“They really embraced it,” she says of SLC employees who are now caretakers of what she calls a “monarch way station” where long-toothed monarchs lay eggs, then new ones hatch. It is, says Taylor, “a stunning example of what you can do.”
Taylor’s commitment to “doing” is clear. She has lugged a box full of Solo Cup-bearing individual milkweed stalks to Decker Lake, to be planted and nurtured for hopeful monarch propagation by a committed, non-inmate citizen-scientist she is coordinating with at the site.
Taylor is in search of an army of citizen scientists. Through Sept. 30, Citizen Scientists I and II can inform the Southwest Monarch Study in its tracking of monarchs in Utah.