The Soul of a Naturalist: An Interview with Sy Montgomery

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky

Sy Montgomery writes of animals, but her work’s hallmark is its humanity. In more than 20 books, and in field research that has taken her from the realm of snow leopards in the Altai Mountains to the oceans of French Polynesia, Montgomery has searched to understand the minds of the animals with whom we share our world. Montgomery’s descriptions of her encounters with creatures as seemingly alien as octopuses and familiar as our pets inevitably reveal the kind of consciousness and personality our species has for so long been reluctant to admit. The result is a body of writing that is as rigorous in its thinking as it is enchanting, and that our planet in environmental crisis is lucky to have. It was an honor to speak with one of our greatest naturalists—and one who takes dance lessons with her dog, to boot.


Emma Komlos-Hrobsky: The Soul of an Octopus made me fall in love with your work, but I have read as much of your writing as I can get my hands on since then. In all of it, I am in awe of the wonder and respect and care with which you write about the natural world. I am just tickled to get to speak to you.

Sy Montgomery: Well, I am thrilled to find a kindred spirit. There’s nothing better than talking to an octopus fan.

EKH: What have you been up to so far this summer?

SM: Oh my gosh, I scheduled too many things. I’m writing a book on a wildebeest migration expedition that I did last summer with one of my best friends, Richard Estes. He is the world’s top expert on wildebeest, and all these years I’ve known him, I’ve wanted to go with him and finally I did, on my dream safari with my very best friend in the whole world, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. Liz had discovered, with Katy Payne, infrasound and elephants, and she had done a study of the Dodoth, a group of warrior herdsmen in Uganda, and to go to Africa with Liz and Dick was amazing.

So, I’m writing that, but meanwhile I’m trying to plan for an expedition in the fall to California, for a book on condors, and I’m trying to plan another expedition in the spring with giant manta rays. I’m shepherding my hyena book to publication. But meanwhile I’ve decided that my dog should be taking dance lessons. What was I thinking? (laughing)

EKH: What kind of dance lessons? Do you dance?

SM: Well, it’s crazy. I don’t dance. I mean, I dance for fun in the basement like Snoopy does on Schroeder’s piano. It’s canine freestyle. Thurber’s two years old and he’s a Border collie, and I just wanted us to do something together. We walk for two hours in the woods every day, but I just thought, you know, they’re so smart, Border collies, and it would be fun. So he’s taking dance lessons with me, and this other lady and her dog and I’m like, what was I thinking? I purposely did not have children and now I’m taking my dog to dance lessons! (laughing)

EKH: How do the dance lessons even work? I can’t even imagine. Is it partner dancing?

SM: Yes, you’re the dog’s partner. There’s a million great YouTube canine freestyle dance videos of people and dogs dancing together to music. Thurber’s so smart but he can’t do stuff that you see there. But what he can do: He can do a weave through your legs, he can circle around you. He can do a twist, he can do a spin. He can roll over on the floor. We’re working on walking backwards. I mean, it’s just fun. Lately, he really likes that song by A Great Big World called “Say Something,” which is hilarious because of course he’s saying something. He also likes “Pink Cadillac” the way that Springsteen does it. We’re also doing “Gracias a la Vida” with alternate lyrics; it’s “Gracias a la vida for giving me my doggo…” 

EKH: One of the things I wanted to ask about was how you come about your projects. Does the interest in the animals come first, or is it about who the scientists are around you that you know that have an opportunity for you to go work in the field, or is it a combination of the two?

SM: Well, each one varies. Sometimes I’ll meet somebody who’s working on a really cool project and think like, “Wow! That’s a book!” and certainly that’s almost always the case with the scientists in the field books that I do for younger readers. But the other books, the adult books, those pretty much come out of my head with my desire to look at a particular animal and then I go out and try to find the experts who can help me. With the octopus, this was one of those things I’d had in the back of my mind, wanting to do all my life but I knew I wasn’t ready to do it until 2011.

EKH: What made you ready at that point? What had changed?

SM: I had 20 books under my belt and I was smarter. I had a better understanding of terrestrial life, but I had done very little with invertebrates and done very little with ocean organisms—and yet most animals on the planet are marine invertebrates.

The idea wasn’t “let me write about an octopus.” It was “let me write about the mind of an octopus.” I have written about the minds of animals in all of my work, acknowledging of course that they have them, which not everybody seems to do as a given. In the 1960s, before Jane Goodall went into the field and began her studies of chimpanzees, writing a book about the mind of an animal would be sniffed at as ridiculous. Even when Jane wrote her first scientific papers saying that chimpanzees use tools, they were rejected, and not just because people thought “oh, chimps can’t be using tools.” It was even more fundamental than that—it was because she named them, and people felt that you had to number them like rocks because their individuality didn’t matter or did not even exist.

So I was able to come to the point where I was able to write about the mind of an octopus by standing on the shoulders of giants like Jane Goodall, like John Marzluff who’s done this work on crows, like Donald Griffin who’s no longer alive, alas, and has written about animal consciousness, and like so many other researchers who have gotten together the observations and the data and the understanding so that my readers were even able to consider the mind of an octopus.

EKH: Why do you think it is that we’re so reluctant to grant animals that kind of dignity of mind? Is it just, like, a failure of imagination or empathy on our part or something else?

SM: It’s Rene Descartes. Cartesian philosophy, that’s why. Cartesian philosophy has ruled Western philosophy ever since he said, “Je pense, donc je suis”.

EKH: And if we start to give animals that kind of dignity, that then we have to take them more seriously or treat them better?

SM: That’s part of it. It commands us to behave differently in the world, and people don’t like that. Look how we still treat people of color! Look how we still treat women of any color! They’re fifty percent of the population. We are very good at setting down a line between whoever we decide “us” is and everything else so that we can stand on the pinnacle, whether it be the very wealthy 1% of Americans or whether it be humans as a group, you know what I mean?

EKH: Yeah, absolutely.

SM: And if we acknowledge that animals have thoughts and feelings and don’t like being killed—like we don’t—, if we acknowledge that animals love their lives as much as we love ours, that means we have to behave differently in the world. That means we can’t just kill them wantonly, that means that we can’t just seize their habitats the way we have done for humans for years–I mean, I love our country, but we stole it! We totally stole it. No one even disputes that fact; they just don’t bring it up. And we’ve stolen it from animals as well.


EKH: What were the first animals you fell in love with when you were a kid, or the first animals that you felt drawn to?

SM: Well, I think before I could even speak it was clear that I loved animals. Before I was two years old—I was born in Frankfurt, Germany—my parents took me to the zoo. I could toddle at that point, and somehow I broke free and I got into the hippo pen. And, of course, hippos bite humans in half all the time, but I wasn’t at all afraid even though they’re large, imposing animals.

I always loved insects. I had turtles—a lot of us had turtles when we were little. Growing up, I was an only child, but essentially I had an older sister. She was actually younger than me but because dogs mature faster than humans do I was very aware that she was more mature. This was my Scottish terrier named Molly. I essentially wanted to be her, I wanted to grow up and be her and that’s what I’ve done. I dreamed that we would run away together and live in the woods or something and that she would show me all the secrets of the animals.

I keep her picture on my desk. She was one of the great loves of my life. I recently did an interview with this super guy and we were talking about heaven. It was only recently, within the past few years, that I realized that never in my concept of heaven have I ever, even as child, thought of my being there with anyone other than the animals. There were never any people in my imagined heaven. Who was there? The animals that I want to see again. I want to see Molly, I want to see Tess, I want to see Christopher Hogwood, I want to see my ferrets, I want to see the turtles I had when I was little. I want to see my seahorses. I want to see Athena and Octavia and Kali and Karma.

My friend who just interviewed me sent me a picture of a whole bunch of dogs kind of sitting together in a big pack outside, and he said “This is what’s going to greet me when I leave this body.” And I just thought, “This is the picture I want to pull out of my wallet when the plane’s going down, ‘cause I’m not going to be afraid!”

EKH: When you’re in the company of animals, does it feel like a really different kind of pleasure or company than you find with people? Or is it that it’s that same pleasure, that same kind of companionship or emotional connection?

SM: It’s mostly different, but there are a few people who I know who basically are animals. They have that animal energy. My best friend Liz Thomas is one of those people. When I’m with her it’s like being with an animal. You don’t have to be anything but your true self. I mean, there are some people with whom you have to be your best self, and it’s good to be your best self, but being with an animal requires no effort. Because there’s no point, you can’t possibly deceive them!

This is the case with an octopus too, because they are the absolute kings and queens of deception. They can change color and shape, so you can’t deceive an octopus because they can deceive you way better. And also, I think they’re tasting your brain chemistry and your blood. I think they know. Your words are of no use with an octopus.

EKH: I love that! I love that it’s just about what they’re experiencing–it’s much more immediate, less filtered, less mediated in a superego – id kind of way.

SM: Absolutely. It’s the same as with a dog.

EKH: When you imagine yourself inside the consciousness of another animal, how much do you think that looks like what our consciousness looks like? Like, I was wondering if you think that animals have an inner monologue that runs through their minds in some form that’s at all like what our inner monologues are like?

SM: I don’t think theirs have any words, even though animals do have words. Prairie dogs have words, but I don’t think they think in words.

One of my friends is Temple Grandin, the famous autistic person. She does not think in words, and she knows she doesn’t think in words. There have been lots of people— lots of linguists for example—who argue that consciousness is about words, and no one would say, “Oh, Temple Grandin is not a conscious being.” She’s written a dozen books. She’s a very eloquent professor. But when she thinks, it’s not in words! And you think can perfectly well not in words.

I also think that thinking could feel different in the heads of animals than it does to us, but then thinking could feel different in your head versus in my head. We don’t know what it feels like.

EKH: Right. And how do we even begin to ask those questions in ways that can give us a meaningful answer? How do we study that? I also always wondered too about, do animals have memory or nostalgia in the same way that people do? Do you have a sense of that?

SM: I know that they remember things. That’s obvious. They couldn’t run a maze, for example, if they didn’t remember things. You couldn’t train animals to do anything. But I would guess that if they have nostalgic memory, they have less because I don’t think it is adaptive to them. They wouldn’t recognize you. I could go on forever. For example, I don’t think an old dog lies on the floor with his arthritic bones thinking, “Aw, I really long for the days I could play with a ball.” I don’t think he could do that, and that’s good.

EKH: What are the big questions you have about animal minds or how animal consciousness works? What are the questions that keep you up at night that we’re sort of on the cusp of but not able to answer yet?

SM: Oh, boy. They’re kind of emotional. I wish I knew what their thoughts felt like in their head. I wish all the time that I could know what animals are thinking. Kind of the same stuff that we think about those who we love – on a plane going somewhere with your husband or your friend and you ask, “Hey, what are you thinking about?” We have no idea what they’re thinking about.

When I was with Dick, the animal specialist guy, at one point—he’s been going back and forth to Tanzania, to the Serengeti, for over 50 years—we were passing through this beloved landscape and I said, “Dick, what are you thinking about?” And of course I expected him to say something like, “Oh, I’m remembering the time in 1968 when I first looked out on the Serengeti and realized these were territorial males” or “Oh, I was just thinking about this particular one-horned wildebeest that I saw with bla bla bla.” But he said, “I’m trying to remember the names of people I know well.” (laughing)

So, you never know! You never know what people are thinking about. It’s not very original or scientific of me but I think the same things about animal minds that I essentially think about human minds.

And, if you have friends in other cultures, it allows you to flex more in thinking about animal cultures, because they do have them. And it helps to have friends whose minds are different, like having friends who are on the spectrum or having friends who have some developmental issue. Their minds are working differently too. That automatically sets you up to appreciate those differences and to see their splendor and their glory and to make sense of them. Because if instead you’re like, “Oh, they’re doing this for no reason” or “Gosh, this is really stupid” you’ll never understand it. You’ll never see it for what it is.

EKH: I love that. And I also love how present people are in your books. I could imagine taking a very different position in your writing, to be much more journalistic or cut out your own role or role of the scientists doing the research, but that’s so much of what the narrative is always about. I wondered if that’s something that you’re conscious of, of showing us in contact with animals, if that’s something you want to cultivate deliberately? Have you ever imagined writing it a different way, a more strictly journalistic kind of way?

SM: I was surprised in The Soul of an Octopus by what a big role people played, but I recognized when they came into the picture that they were part of the story. The narrative of the whole book is becoming friends with animals and with people. When you show that it’s really very similar becoming friends with an animal and becoming friends with a person, and the fact that they’re all hand in hand or should I say, hand in tentacle or hand in sucker, it becomes much easier to accept.

I have to tell you something else: Don’t think this was because I was smart at all. The only thing I deserve credit for is having sense enough to be around these animals. Everything else came to me just because of that, and that has been true for all of my work. Incredible stuff has happened to me that I couldn’t have planned.

For example, I did a book called Journey of the Pink Dolphins that took place in the Amazon. So I went to the Amazon. I show up in Manaus and what do I discover but the Teatro Amazonas, which is this beautiful theater, this beautiful opera house, that was built a thousand miles up the Amazon, this gorgeous place that kind of defined the whole Western history of Brazil. After 90 years of being closed, they were going to perform the first opera while I was there. And this had nothing to do with anything that I had planned! I’m writing about these animals that people all over the Amazon believed were magic and I can tell you, they are magic.

At the time, my idea for the book was to follow these pink dolphins on their migration. I had read in scientific papers that they migrate. Well, guess what? I show up and find out that they don’t migrate! My entire book proposal is completely trashed, right there! And I’m standing there with my photographer—we’ve just spent all this money getting there. I’m with the first scientist that I planned to focus on and the entire premise of the book is flying out the window.

But it was a fabulous blessing because what I was able to do was so much cooler—I was able to follow them in a different way, follow them through myth and through story and history and I was able to do something that no one had been able to do before. And that was made possible by them, not me.

EKH: That makes me think about when I was reading the part in Birdology about cassowaries. It almost seems to me that they have the quality of the ancient Greek muse—like, they may or may not show up.

SM: Right! Oh my god!

EKH: Writing is already such a hard thing, at least for me, and when you’re subject to the whims, too, of the animals that you’re here to learn about and to know, how often does it happen that something just completely resists your attempt to get to know it or just delivers itself in a way that’s very, very different from what you were expecting?

SM: All the time, all the time! There’s this one lecture that I’ve done a couple times called “When Things Go Horribly Wrong” and it’s about when you’re writing nonfiction, it’s so different from fiction because you don’t know what’s going to happen. Even though it’s nonfiction and it’s all true, you don’t know what’s going to be revealed, you don’t know how it’s going to unfold. Even if you’re doing something that’s historical you’re going to dig into the archives and be surprised. Otherwise it’s going to be boring, and someone else would have done it long before you.

So yeah, that happens all the time. So far, with one exception, I have always ended up with a terrific story.


EKH: Do you end up writing a lot in the field, or is it mostly that you come back and later figure out what you have and what you’ve seen and what you’ve been taking notes on?

SM: In the field I take three notebooks. One is for sitting down and interviewing people. One is for taking notes in the field, like when you’re walking. I even have a dive slate for when I dive, although you can’t often read what the hell you wrote because it rubs off underwater or your mask magnifies and distorts what you’re writing and all that kind of stuff. I take notes while I’m in the field, while I’m hiking, while I’m riding a camel, while I’m riding an elephant or whatever.

I also have a journal that I keep at night. Right when I’m totally exhausted and really should be picking the ticks out of my skin with my tweezers for hours, often I’ll write not just a diary of what happened that day, but kind of what was the theme of what I learned. And some days there’s no theme— it’s just, “These twelve weird things happened” or “I sat around in the sun all day while ants crawled up my leg.”

When I get home and sit down at the computer, I’m pulling from a lot of other sources as well and trying to piece things together. So I don’t just open my field journal and transcribe it and there’s my book. But the field journal is really crucial, and a lot of the language in the book is directly lifted from the field journal. Whole sentences are taken verbatim. You always rewrite the paragraphs but a lot of it comes right from that, which gives it a kind of immediacy.

EKH: Yeah, I think one of the things that’s so striking and so powerful in your writing is that feeling of immediacy, like I’m there in the moment with you, having whatever this encounter is. I’m always curious about how you get back into the place of mind that you were in, or just back to those feelings.

SM: Because I think in words, those words will carry me back. Sometimes it’s hard too. When I wrote Good Good Pig, that book was absolutely hell to write. Everything in it was gone forever. It was just hard to chronicle my loss. Although Tess isn’t dead in the body of the book, she died shortly after Christopher Hogwood died. I was in a really serious depression when I wrote that book and I did not enjoy writing it. It wasn’t a release, it wasn’t cathartic, it wasn’t helpful, but I did it. And I am so glad I did it. For 9 months I wrote that book and felt terrible every single day and dreaded writing it every single day. But for the rest of my life, I and all of my readers will be able to read it and be happy.

EKH: Am I right that you originally studied psychology?  Did you think you’d be doing work primarily with humans? Or have you always felt that this was where you were going to end up, that this was the kind of work you were going to do?

SM: Well, I wanted to add a fourth major, which would have been biology but the school didn’t let me. I think I was the only triple major they had at the time, so they were all bent out of shape. I basically wanted to learn everything I possibly could, except for math because that part of my brain was destroyed at birth. Studying psychology, what it did for me more than teaching me how the brain worked was that it taught me to think about thinking. Not how to think about thinking, but to think about thinking.

EKH: Do you ever get any flak from scientists that wish you had different credentials that way, or feel like you’re going too far into anthropomorphizing in your writing? I think if there’s anything I’ve taken from your books, it’s that if we’re doing anything wrong, it’s not giving enough credence to how richly animals think, how cognitive they are, how complex and nuanced and sophisticated their interactions are with us and with each other and how alive their minds are.

SM: You know, strangely, there was only one review that I saw of Octopus that seemed to say “Oh you’re anthropomorphizing” or “Gee, all your stuff was with captive animals.” Now, that was not true. All my stuff was not captive animals and I had spent a couple of weeks with two—no, three —of the world’s top researchers in the field, working with them, plus Mexico. But that reviewer apparently never made it to that chapter.

I do sometimes get questions about anthropomorphism but I think that they’re friendly questions from audiences. They’ve just kind of heard like “Ooh, anthropomorphism bad,” and I’m delighted to answer that because I say, yeah, it’s easy to project your feelings onto someone else, no matter what species they are. Have you ever asked anyone out who didn’t want to go? Ever buy a present for someone that they didn’t like? Well, you projected something onto them and it was wrong. But a bigger mistake is to deny that these animals have thoughts and feelings and memories. That’s the big problem.

Researching articles, films, and her 21 books for adults and children, nationally bestselling author Sy Montgomery has been chased by an angry silverback gorilla in Rwanda, hunted by a tiger in India, and swum with piranhas, electric eels and pink dolphins in the Amazon. For The Soul of an Octopus (a National Book Award finalist) she befriended octopuses at the New England aquarium and scuba dived and snorkeled with wild octopuses in Mexico and French Polynesia. Her most recent books are Tamed and Untamed: Close Encounters of the Animal Kind, coauthored with Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, and Amazon Adventure: How Tiny Fish are Saving the World’s Largest RainforestShe lives in New Hampshire with her husband, the writer Howard Mansfield, their border collie Thurber, and their flock of free-range laying hens.

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky is associate editor at Tin House.