How to Be A Good Creature

How to Be A Good Creature: A Memoir in thirteen Animals
by Sy Montgomery, 2018, Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt

Reviewed by Linda DeStefano
Translated into Spanish by Rob English

How to be a good Creature is an intimate portrait of a woman who forms deep attachments – to humans and a wide variety of other animals. Since the author shares so much of her life, I feel a kinship with her and will refer to her by her first name – Sy.

Sy’s first beloved animal was a strong-willed Scottish terrier, Molly. From Molly, she learned independence, determination and the love of adventure.

Sy’s adventures have taken her to many remote areas around the world, including Australia, Africa, Asia and South America. These were expeditions to do scientific research and to gather material for her several books for adults and children. Her determination was tested by such challenges as ticks, mosquitoes, poisonous snakes, dangerous plants and an arduous uphill trek that left her with hypothermia and altitude sickness. But she persisted and valued each adventure.

She and her husband, Howard Mansfield, rescued a runt piglet, an unloved border collie (and, later, another), and a puppy who is blind in one eye. After many years of a pampered life, Christopher Hogwood (who had grown to be a huge pig) and Tess, their beloved border collie, died within a short time of each other. Sy went into a deep depression but came out of it through her curiosity and open-heartedness regarding other animals.

One of her featured creatures is Clarabelle, a tarantula. Sy and her colleague on a spider expedition discovered Clarabelle on a plant in the building where they were staying. She was a species of tarantula known to be docile, and she readily walked on to Sy’s outstretched palm. Later, they borrowed Clarabelle to teach a lesson to the local children, who had acquired the common human fear and dislike of spiders. Even the girl who had admitted to being afraid of spiders, allowed Clarabelle to walk on her palm. Another whispered: “She is beautiful, this monster!”

Athena and Octavia, octopi at the New England Aquarium, became friends with Sy. Sy describes her first meeting with Athena: “The moment the aquarist opened the heavy lid to her tank, Athena slid over to inspect me. Her dominate eye swiveled in its socket to meet mine, and four or five of her four-foot-long boneless arms, red with excitement, reached toward me from the water. Without hesitation, I plunged my hands and arms into the tank and soon found my skin covered with dozens, then hundreds, of her strong, white, coin-size suckers. An octopus can taste with all its skin, but this sense is most exquisitely honed in the suckers. If a human had begun tasting me so early in our relationship, I would have been alarmed. But this was an earthbound alien – someone who could change color and shape, who could pour her baggy forty-pound body into an opening smaller than an orange, someone with a beak like a parrot and venom like a snake and ink like an old-fashioned pen. Yet clearly, this large, strong, smart marine invertebrate – one more different from a human than any creature I had ever met before – was as interested in me as I was in her.” (pp. 141-142)

Sy considered her family complete with her husband, their animals and their friends – not needing biological children. I got a chuckle from her explanation: “I had never wanted kids of my own, even when I was one. When I discovered, as a child, that I would forever be unable to conceive or bear puppies, I crossed having babies off the list. The Earth was grossly overburdened with humans already.” (p. 55) But Sy enjoys having children as friends. Intrigued by Christopher Hogwood, two girls who lived next door came almost daily to feed, pet and wash him. They became good friends with Sy. Eventually, the children, their mother, Sy and her husband, and the animals became like one family.

I would say that Sy herself has learned well from each creature and is a good creature herself.

This book is easy to read and has charming drawings and interesting photos.

Linda is President of People for Animal Rights. For a sample of our newsletter (which comes out twice-yearly), contact PAR, P.O. Box 15358, Syracuse 13215-0358, (315)488-PURR (7877) between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m., people4animalrightscny@gmail.com. You can visit our website at peopleforanimalrightsofcny.org

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