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During a time when it feels like the whole world needs to go back to school just to figure out how to stay alive on the planet, author and naturalist Sy Montgomery’s just-released new book for children, Becoming a Good Creature, offers a message we all could stand to learn.
The book is adapted from her 2018 best-selling memoir for adults, How to Be a Good Creature, about her life living with and studying animals. In her pioneering and award-winning career, Montgomery has published over 20 books about her experiences observing animals and the natural world, “trying to see something new—and trying to find new ways of seeing,” she writes.
The new book for young readers explores some of the lessons Montgomery has learned from animals, framing these creatures as “teachers,” from her first dog and “big sister” Molly, a Scottish Terrier, to a trio of emus, a white weasel, a beloved pet pig, tree kangaroos, and yes, even more dogs.
So, why is it important to think about what we can learn from animals, especially now, during a global pandemic caused by human exploitation of animals?
“Because most of life isn’t humanity. Most living things aren’t people,” Montgomery explains, speaking to Rover on a recent phone call from her home in New Hampshire.
“Some of my best friends are people. I married a person. I like people! But [humans] are just a small slice of the wonder that this Earth has to offer us. Paying attention to one species is limiting and impoverishing, the same as only eating one food or only listening to one song or only visiting your own neighborhood and never going anywhere else. [Learning from animals] expands your and your capacity for compassion. And we can use that.”
Read on for more edited and condensed excerpts from our interview with Montgomery.
How did you come to study animals and write about them?
I have loved animals from the moment I was born, before I even have any memories. I was told by my parents that when I was about two years old—I was born in Germany—they took me to the Frankfurt Zoo, and I somehow toddled out of their hands and into the hippo enclosure, where they found me, much to their distress. But I was fine and the hippos were fine. So I think like most children, I was just crazy about animals.
My father was in the military and I grew up on army bases and didn’t have any siblings, so at an early age I was not distracted from carefully and quietly watching animals. And the more I learned about just being with them and watching them, the deeper my fascination became. But I wasn’t one of those kids who dressed up their dog in baby clothes or anything like that.
Then we got our first dog, Molly, when I was about three. She became an adult long before I was, and she was essentially an older sister to me.
I wanted to be her. I wanted to have the powers that she did, to be able to hear the things that she could hear that humans can’t, to smell the things that humans can’t, to see in the dark, to run really fast. I admired her for who she was, and I think she set the pattern for my relationship with every animal subsequently, one that was a relationship of apprenticeship, really, not dominion.
A series of meaningful events eventually compelled Montgomery to pursue the study of wild animals and the natural world. For more about her journey to writing about and studying animals, read her fascinating (abridged!) autobiographical account here.
What so often comes through in your writing is not just the science and observation-based findings you present about animals, but also the real, warm affection you have for them. Can you talk about the difference, or the connection between, being a scientist and a researcher on the one hand, and a genuine animal lover on the other?
My first published book was about the ape ladies, Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas [Walking With the Great Apes], and that book was essentially a biography of their relationships with their so-called “study animals.” These women were bonafide scientists eventually, but when Jane and Dian went in the field, they did not have scientific credentials. Maruti did. But, one reason that their studies were so phenomenal, and revolutionized the study of animal behavior, was that they used not just their intellect, not just their scientific background, but everything they had: their heads, their hearts, their intuition, their emotions. They formed relationships with the animals that they were studying because each one was an individual creature, an individual creature with friends and enemies and history and a distinct personality.
Up until that time, most ethologists were men, and the science of studying animals demanded that they be numbered instead of named, and demanded that you look for the champion behavior, not the way that Flo was behaving or Flint was behaving or Fifi was behaving. [The science] didn’t want to know that each animal was just different from every other one, as is the case with people.
And they also did not want to know that every animal loved their life as much as we love ours. So some of the things that Jane and Dian and Birute discovered, along with the many people whose works came after that, made some scientists and philosophers uncomfortable, because it throws into sharp contrast the facts that show that we’re all family, and that man is not at the top of some pinnacle.
I just think it’s super important and revelatory to use everything at our disposal to study and understand the natural world.
You are part of an elite group of naturalists and writers, who have, in your lifetime, contributed to meaningful advancements in how science regards the complexity of animal life. You’ve written about how animals dream, how they love, animal consciousness, animal socialization; behaviors sometimes written off as “anthropomorphizing” or “unscientifically sentimental.“ What has it been like to help pioneer a new way of thinking about animals, and to have personally confronted, and dismantled, some long held notions about animals (as unfeeling, unthinking automatons)?
Well, I think that every child knows it. It’s something we’re kind of almost born knowing, and we just get these lies shoved down our throats. But, you know, pets, even if you have a goldfish, are kind of the “gateway drug” that help you see the truth. And when I say even if you have a goldfish is just because goldfish are not as closely related to us as dogs. All mammals share 90% of our human genetic material. And fish less so. But still, we are more like a fish than just about anything else.
There’s a wonderful book by Neal Shubin called Your Inner Fish, which shows that our body plan is basically the fish body plan. But it’s out of water and, you know, because we are made from essentially from fish, that’s why we get hiccups, I mean, so much of our anatomy is explained by the fact that we’re basically made up out of a fish!
I think that there was a big segment of the world that was very hungry to hear what they already knew was true. That animals love their lives, that animals think, feel, and know, that they have memories, and the degree to which this is true, that science is now showing us, is just startling.
Butterflies can remember stuff from their caterpillar-hood, we now know. They did these experiments in which caterpillars were exposed to a particular odor and given a a mild but unpleasant electric shock. And then the caterpillars turn into chrysalises, reorganized their whole bodies, and came out and they remembered that scent was no good! That, to me, is freaking amazing.
The more I find out about the the rich, psychological world that animals live in, the more happier and excited I become to be here on this planet. What a glorious planet! And to be surrounded by all these incandescent souls. I love that!
I want to talk more about the innate idea that children already have about animals—this awareness that they are special, and that they have something to teach us.
I mean, children dream about animals, that’s what their dreams are full of, that’s what your brain is set up for.
And the whole history of children’s literature, filled with animals characters, children are learning from animals at a very young age. But somewhere along in life, something gets lost; can you explain the disconnect that happens when we first see, and accept, animals, as teachers, when we are young, but then come to view them as objects and commodities as we get older?
Well, I think that there are financial interests out there that work very hard to make it ok to objectify animals. When you look at the objectification of women, when you look at slavery, for example, what was behind these horrors was financial interest. So, you know, obviously, farming animals to eat them is big industry. There’s also a big industry in selling animals, I mean, in in some cases, as treasured pets, but in other cases, taking animals out of the wild that shouldn’t be pets at all. Taking them away from their parents, you know, the pet trade. There’s a lot of bad stuff in the pet trade. There is an enormous trade in endangered animals. As you know, this is what gave us COVID. This should be a clue that maybe that should be stopped!
So there’s huge financial interests out there. And you know, most people eat meat. I mean, I don’t, I I stopped eating meat like, uh, in my twenties, and I’m 62 now, and this this doesn’t mean that I think everybody eats meat is horrible because, you know, dogs eat meat and cats eat meat and cheetahs eat meat. But raising them in a horrible way is certainly dreadful. And I did a children’s book on Temple Grandin [How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World] specifically to bring to light how these animals are raised and kids are horrified.
I mean, you go to a barbecue joint and there’s a happy pig in a chef’s hat, and that’s what they want us to buy. And the same thing with using animals in laboratories to test drugs and cosmetics and cleaning products. There’s a big industry out there that depends on our not believing that animals think, feel, and know.
What are some of the most important things you have learned from your many pet dogs, such as Thurber and Molly?
Molly showed me who I wanted to be. Molly showed me for the rest of my life that, animals could be teachers, and that exponentially expanded my vision about life. I loved her so much.
Thurber showed me that you never know what wonderful thing may be happening around the corner. When it looks like everything is lost, it’s not lost. A wonderful thing may be waiting for you as it was for me.
[After a series of beloved pets died] I was just going to end it. I felt so defeated and I couldn’t see a way to go on.
When the vet came to our home and in our bedroom, and gave [Sally, a Border Collie] the legal shot while I was holding her in my arms, well, I think he saw that I was done for if something didn’t happen.
And that’s when when he got a whole litter of pups from a very famous Border Collie breeder and one of them had a blind eye. He called me immediately.
What were the chances of that happening? I knew Dave Kennard, I knew his famous dogs. I knew they went for thousands of dollars. I knew he would not sell them as pets. They were all sold as working dogs because Border Collies really need something pretty athletic and exciting and interesting to do for huge numbers of hours of every day. If, for instance, if you have a job out of your house, it would be really hard to have a Border, so he never sold them.
What are the chances that he would have a pup with a blind eye, who couldn’t be used as a working dog, and whose best chances at life were to be a pet? That was just a miracle. Thurber showed me that miracles are are right out there, and the only way you’re going to benefit from these miracles is if you are alive.
If you keep your eyes and ears out for them, no matter how despairing things look, there could be a miracle waiting for you right outside the door, because it was for me.
You’ve studied and written about animals from the great apes to tarantulas; what animal have you not yet studied who you would like to know better, and why?
One that I’ve had to put on the back burner for the moment is the giant manta ray. I was supposed to have just recently returned from diving with giant manta rays for a book, but we had to put that off a year. So, that’s the next the next one. These guys, they’re relatives of sharks, and they’re extremely smart and long lived.
When, for example, they get entangled in fishing gear, as often happens, they will sometimes approach divers to help disentangle them. Then animals will come back to the diver, essentially to say thank you. This has happened with whales as well. But to have a giant manta ray who’s as big as a car stay still for you to cut a huge net off, swim away joyously and then decide to come back to say thank you, that’s just amazing. Anyway, I can’t wait to meet these guys.
Right now, though, I’m focusing on turtles, I’m working on a book on turtles that will take several years before it will come out. I’m working with Turtle Rescue League, in Massachusetts, these wonderful ladies who have, like, 300 turtles right now in their basement, who either hatched from incubators from eggs collected from dead mothers that they found on the road, or turtles like the one I’m releasing today, and the one I released yesterday, who had shell fractures.
There’s other turtles who have had severe brain damage from car collisions, or who have been chewed by dogs, and after a few years, they come back and they’re fine. It’s an amazing thing to witness these healing miracles, and it’s wonderful working with with these folks, and I’m so eager to learn many things turtles know.
Turtles live a long time, even some of the common ones like snapping turtles can live almost 200 years, and to think that there’s someone in your neighborhood who can live 175 years—that means everything has to go right. But someone who can live 150, 200 years, who lives in your neighborhood and is not a tree, the stuff that they know, and their powers of survival, that’s amazing.
I’m also finding, during this time of COVID, when everything seems sick or broken, it is so wonderful to have even a tiny hand in healing a broken life, in healing a broken turtle shell. It is so restorative for me to be able to restore some small piece of this broken world.
Upcoming dates on Montgomery’s virtual book tour include a visit to Madison, Connecticut’s RJ Julia Booksellers, Thursday, 10/1, at 5 p.m. ET, and to Seattle’s Third Place Books, Thursday, 10/8, at 5 p.m. PT / 8 p.m. ET.