Remember back when we were all tubes?
Sy Montgomery does. That was a simpler time, eons before the octopus and Homo sapiens went their separate evolutionary ways, and certainly long before that highly intelligent cephalopod, which appeared some 300 million years ago, ended up boiled, stewed and fried. “Our lineage goes back a half-billion years ago when everyone was a tube,” says Montgomery, a naturalist and author of many books about animals. “That was when there were no eyes. Yet we have evolved almost identical eyes. I just love that.”
Montgomery’s enthusiasm and devotion to Earth’s creatures—and the similarities we share with them—has inspired her readers to get to know the eight-tentacled and big-brained wonders in The Soul of the Octopus, and taken us to the ends of the Earth and back to our own backyards in such award-winning books as Spell of the Tiger and Birdology.
A real-life Dr. Dolittle, Montgomery says she’s always related best to animals and—sometimes straining the patience of her bipedal family members—has long treated her home as a land-bound ark for orphaned animals. In scientifically precise but poetic prose, she writes that we share greater similarities than differences with the electric eel, the tarantula, the tree kangaroo and the snow leopard. Don’t forget, she says, that we hail from the same genetic pool, or more likely, gurgling swamp. By paying attention to the commonalities we have with our fellow animals—our singular capacity for what Montgomery argues is a broad range of emotions and zeal for life—humans can transcend the “we-shall-rule-the-Earth” anthropocentric focus, she says, and see that we are all in this together.
“We are on the cusp of either destroying this sweet, green Earth—or revolutionizing the way we understand the rest of animate creation,” Montgomery said. “It’s an important time to be writing about the connections we share with our fellow creatures. It’s a great time to be alive.”
Leslie Crawford: Do you understand animals more than people?
Sy Montgomery: As a child, I grew up on an Army base and I did not have a single human friend. It allowed me the freedom to get to know other species. I vividly remember my 20s like it was yesterday. As a young person, I was often worried about whether or not I was reading other people correctly. And yet these are organisms that use the same English language. It’s terrific to be in my 60s and know I can read animals. I have always read animals better than people.
What did you find surprising about humans as a child?
I was shocked to learn that people use their language to lie. Even little kids lie. Of course, animals will lie, too. An octopus will say, “I’m four or five sea snakes.” What the octopus does is change each of its arms to look like a sea snake, which is very poisonous. Chimpanzees lie all the time. But the degree to which humans use language to lie shocked me. I’ve always dealt with animals in a very straightforward way. I wasn’t ever trying to conceal things from them. Humans often want incorrect information about you and project incorrect things on you.
So much has changed about our understanding of animals since you started writing about them. When did you first realize that animals are sentient beings?
I think most of us realize as children that animals are sentient beings. But then, somehow, for so many people, this truth gets overwritten—by schools teaching old theories, by agribusiness that wants us to treat animals like products, by the pharmaceutical and medical industries who want to test products on animals as if they were little more than petri dishes. But thankfully, scientific and evolutionary evidence for animal sentience has grown too obvious to ignore.
What have you learned about animals and consciousness?
You don’t want to project onto animals your wishes and desires. You have to respect your fellow animals. I don’t want to roll in vomit, but a hyena would enjoy that. I don’t want to kill everything I eat with my face, but that’s what I’d do if I’m a great white shark. If I were eating a carcass, I would not be as happy about it as a scavenger. We have different lives but what we share is astonishingly deep, evolutionarily speaking.
When did you know you were an animal person?
Animals have always been my best friends and the source of my deepest joy. Before I was 2, I toddled into the hippo pen at the Frankfurt Zoo, seeking their company, and totally unafraid. When I learned to speak, one of my first announcements to my parents was that I was really a horse. The pediatrician reassured my mother I would outgrow this phase. He was right, because next I announced I was really a dog.
My father loved animals. Growing up, my mother had a dog named Flip who she adored. But I seem to have had an even greater attachment to animals than they did. My friend, the author Brenda Peterson, says that I must have been adopted at the local animal shelter.
How many animals do you currently live with?
Right now, the only animal who lives with us is a border collie named Thurber. I travel a lot: Thailand, Ecuador, Germany, Spain. I can’t force my husband to have a house filled with animals. I had chickens but predators got almost all of them. Weasels got into the coop. They are so smart. Even though we buried wire beneath the floor, weasels need just a tiny opening to get through. You can never weasel-proof an old barn.
It sounds like you have some respect for weasels even though they killed your chickens?
They were there first. I learned my chickens were killed on Christmas morning when I brought a bowl of popcorn to them and saw this white creature with black eyes staring at me. You’d think I’d be angry. But the beauty and ferocity of this creature filled me with awe. At the same time that I mourned my beloved chickens, I admired the weasel.
You originally studied psychology. How do you go about thinking about what animals are thinking? Or is it a mistake for people to imagine animals are thinking in a way that we think?
I triple majored in college, and psychology was one of them. But thinking about animals wasn’t really part of the coursework. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that nonhuman animals share our motivations and much of our thought processes. We want the same things: food, safety, interesting work and, in the case of social animals, love. But we can’t always apply human tastes to animals—otherwise fish would seek to escape from the water and hyenas wouldn’t roll in vomit.
When did you stop eating meat and dairy and why do you think some people make the decision and others don’t?
I read Animal Liberation, by Peter Singer, in my 20s. Even though I loved meat, I haven’t eaten it since. I can’t wait to try the Impossible Burger!
In writing Sprig, I learned so much about pigs, including how smart they are. What do you love most about pigs?
They are so sensitive and emotional. And they’re wise. They know what matters in life: warm sun, the touch of loving hands and great food.
Similarly, when I wrote Gwen, I found out how remarkable hens are with their own superpowers, including keen eyesight and a strong community that includes watching out for each other.
I agree with you. I love these aspects of their lives. I love how similar they are to us in so many ways, but I also love the otherness of these animals.
Speaking of “otherness,” in your book Soul of an Octopus, you came to know Athena, an octopus, as a friend. But can a person really know an octopus?
Until the day I met Athena in 2011, pretty much all of the creatures I got to know personally were vertebrates. We are so like fellow mammals, with whom we share 90 percent of our genetic material.
I didn’t know if I would be able to bring what I understand about other animals to an invertebrate, but I was delighted to see it was true of the octopus. It was clear the octopus was just as curious about me as I was about her.
There are some animals who aren’t interested in you. But when you have an octopus look you in the face and investigate you with her suckers with such an intensity, well, what that octopus taught me [about consciousness] blew me away. When Athena grabbed me, I correctly understood that she wasn’t being aggressive, just curious.
How do you convince people to consider an octopus as something other than something to eat?
I tell them about my octopus friends, Octavia and Kali and Karma—specific individuals to whom they could relate.
I have realized that preaching to people about seeing animals as worthy of the same compassion and dignity as is owed humans doesn’t work. But if preaching isn’t effective, what do you think works to change hearts and minds—and stomachs?
Teach by example. It’s the most powerful tool we have. Your love for pigs, told through your stories of Sprig and Gwen, is contagious because of your example. You show how much fun it is to let these animals enrich your life and make others want to be part of it. That’s much more appealing than a lecture.
Are there one or two calls to action you would ask of people who want to improve the world for animals?
I would suggest that individuals find the action that best suits them. For me, when I was young, working 14 hours a day and making relatively little money, I had no extra time for volunteer work, and my tithes to animal causes amounted to far too little. But I could change my diet, so I did. For another person, an overnight change to vegetarianism or veganism might be too tough, but perhaps they could volunteer at a shelter.
I personally hate politics, though I vote and donate. But other people might throw themselves joyously into working toward electing candidates that support conservation and animal welfare legislation. Happily, we can all work with our individual strengths to make the change animals deserve.
What about everything we learn daily about climate change and the growing risk of mass extinctions?
Sometimes you don’t want to read the headlines. It’s so depressing. During the civil rights movement, I was too young to have anything to do with that. But now we can choose to be part of what is definitely a movement, one that recognizes that nonhuman animals think and know and feel the way we do. We know this based on cognitive and behavioral science. That change has happened within my lifetime, which is fantastic.
The fact that we live during a challenging time gives us an opportunity to be courageous. I’m thrilled to be able to apply my courage to such a worthy endeavor and with such worthy partners.