Book review: ‘How to Become a Good Creature’ by Sy Montgomery

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

“How to Become a Good Creature” is subtitled “A Memoir in 13 Animals.” The author, Sy Montgomery, is a naturalist and prolific writer of animal books for both adults and children. During an interview, she was asked what she had learned from the animals. Her answer is the title of this book. The book explores what thatphrase means.

Four of the animals, described as her teachers, are dogs. One is her childhood dog. Three are border collies, and that is about the only thing they have in common. That, and the deep love they shared with Sy and her husband. The dogs ranged in age and disposition, but all found a way to fit into the family routine, or maybe it was thatthe Montgomerys found a way to fit into theirs.

A few years after college, Sy Montgomery was assisting graduate students with their research in Australia. Her attention was drawn to three strange, tall, majestic birds: emus. The emus became the focus of her time in Australia. What do they do all day, where do they sleep — standing? And more.

As it turned out, it was impossible to hide from the birds and observe them. So, the first task was to build trust and learn their habitat. With their long legs, there was no way to keep up with them when they left an area, so Montgomery had to learn where they were likely to go. Sy collected literally thousands of pages of data, information for further study.

Two quotations from this chapter are quite insightful:

“I learned a great deal in the Outback, from how to conduct a behavioral study to how to urinate outdoors without peeing on my shoe.”

“To begin to understand the life of any animal demands not only curiosity, not only skill, and not only intellect. I saw I would need to summon the bond I had forged with Molly [childhood dog]. I would need to open my mind, but also my heart.”

If you came into your chicken coop and found a favorite hen lying dead, would your first reaction be to admire the ermine responsible? I had a similar experience with a mink, and that certainly wasn’t mine. Montgomery does use the chapter to convey an important message, but I still wonder if she ever plugged the hole that allowed the ermine entry into the coop in the first place.

“How to Become a Good Creature” is a small book and a quick read. There are lessons to be learned. How do you build a bond with a tarantula or an octopus or, perhaps easier, with a pig? You may even be able to develop a definition for a “good creature.”

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