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A Life of Learning About - and From - Animals

Sy Montgomery with a cheetah in Namibia.
Nic Bishop
Courtesy of Sy Montgomery

We typically hear what scientists have learned about animals. And Sy Montgomery’s career as an author and naturalist has taught her plenty about animals, from octopuses to moon bears. Along the way, Montgomery has also been learning from the animals she has studied and cared for, and those lessons are the focus of her latest book, How To Be A Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals.

Perhaps the most influential animal in Montgomery’s life was her first pet, an “absolutely fierce, and feral, and unstoppable” Scottish terrier named Molly. Montgomery says Molly was more like an older sister, one she adored and admired.

“She was everything I wanted to be,” Montgomery said. “I was the daughter of an Army general and his socially ambitious wife, and she was eager for me to be a little girl running around in lacy socks and frilly dresses. And I wanted to be running through the mud, sticking my head in holes and smelling the animals that were there.”

As a girl, Montgomery dreamed of running away with Molly to live in the woods and learn the secrets of wild animals. Although Molly didn’t live long enough to go along, Montgomery did exactly that.

While working as a local environmental reporter, she volunteered to help with research on the hairy-nosed wombat in South Australia.

“And I loved it so much, and my love of the fieldwork was so obvious, that - God bless Dr. Pamela Parker - she said ‘Listen, I I can't pay you to be an assistant, and I can't even give you an air ticket to come back here. But if you ever want to study anything out here in the outback in my study area, I'll give you food,’” Montgomery recalled.

It was an invitation Montgomery couldn’t refuse. She went home, quit her job, bought a tent, and headed back to Australia. She spent the next six months studying emus, large, flightless birds.

“I fell hard for them,” Montgomery said. “I could not wait to discover their secrets, and I kind of apprenticed myself to them and just followed them wherever they went, wrote down everything they did. And I knew after six months of doing this that this was what I would do for the rest of my life.”

Montgomery has gone on to write nearly two dozen books about animals, aimed at both adults and children. She says that, while she loves the research, she realized – even as a child - that writing about animals could be a powerful way to help endangered and threatened animals.

“I knew that if I could connect to people and make them see what I saw that they would care,” she said. “And if they cared, they would do something.”

And what Montgomery sees in animals is teachers – Molly, who taught her fierce independence; Christopher Hogwood, a pig who showed her the joy of being with children; Tess and Christopher, tree kangaroos who pulled her from depression and renewed her desire to live; and, last but not least, a puppy named Thurber, who shattered her belief in the old saying “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

“He taught me - as did the tree kangaroos - that something wonderful is just around the corner. Just hang on,” Montgomery said. “Sometimes, the teacher will come to you even when you're unprepared, because that is the grace and generosity of animals. All we have to do is keep our eyes open and see that we have these teachers all around us.”

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Elsa Partan is a producer and newscaster with CAI. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.