An­i­mals made ‘Good Crea­ture’ au­thor into a bet­ter hu­man


It was an­i­mals that sent Sy Mont­gomery into a deep, nearly sui­ci­dal de­pres­sion — and an­i­mals that res­cued her and pulled her back. In “How to Be a Good Crea­ture: A Mem­oir in Thir­teen An­i­mals,” Mont­gomery writes about her pro­found con­nec­tion with an­i­mals, all an­i­mals, and how this be­came the fo­cus of her life.

Rather than a tra­di­tional chrono­log­i­cal nar­ra­tive, the mem­oir is struc­tured in 13 stand­alone chap­ters, each cen­ter­ing on a dif­fer­ent an­i­mal. Some are pets, but most are wild — emus, taran­tu­las, er­mines, oc­to­puses, kan­ga­roos. Not an­i­mals that most peo­ple fall in love with, but Mont­gomery is not most peo­ple.

An­i­mals, she writes, taught her to be a bet­ter, more com­pas­sion­ate hu­man be­ing.

“Know­ing some­one who be­longs to an­other species can en­large your soul in sur­pris­ing ways,” she writes.

Over the course of the book, the reader comes to un­der­stand Mont­gomery’s lonely up­bring­ing. She was the only child of a tough mil­i­tary fa­ther and a South­ern steel mag­no­lia mother who drank too much and was al­most cer­tainly abu­sive, a mother who wanted her daugh­ter to be frilly and girlie.

Mont­gomery, how­ever, wanted to be a dog. And when she re­al­ized she would never be able to give birth to pup­pies, she swore off ba­bies for­ever.

When her par­ents got her a Scot­tie dog, ev­ery­thing im­proved.

“I re­mem­ber spend­ing hours ly­ing on the floor, my head rest­ing on my arm, inches from her face, watch­ing her sleep, try­ing to ab­sorb her scent, her breath, her dreams.”

That enor­mous cu­rios­ity about an­i­mals is the thread of Mont­gomery’s life and this book. She spends weeks in Aus­tralia, study­ing three young emus. At the New Eng­land Aquar­ium, she makes friends with an oc­to­pus. (When they turn white, they are calm, and Mont­gomery has a knack for turn­ing them white.)

Back home, she finds her­self ad­mir­ing the bright-eyed er­mine that killed her fa­vorite chicken.

“You’d think I’d have been over­whelmed with anger, out for vengeance,” she says. But in­stead, she is fas­ci­nated. “With daz­zling white fur, a ham­mer­ing pulse and a bot­tom­less ap­petite, the er­mine was ablaze with life.”

The crea­ture re­minds her, oddly, of her mother.

But any­one who loves an an­i­mal knows that heart­break is in­evitable. “Most of the an­i­mals we love … die so long be­fore we do,” she writes. And when her beloved pig dies, fol­lowed closely by her bor­der col­lie, Mont­gomery is lost.

“Though I still had my beloved hus­band, our lovely home, friends who cared, and mean­ing­ful work — bless­ings that had brought joy to ev­ery day — it all felt like noth­ing. … Weeks went by, and then months. Still my de­spair felt bot­tom­less.”

What shakes her out of this dan­ger­ous de­pres­sion is a trip to Pa­pua, New Guinea, where she helps track, study and band the elu­sive tree kan­ga­roo. This work pulls her out of her funk, re­mind­ing her of ev­ery­thing she holds most dear.

These crea­tures “car­ried within them the wild heart that beats in­side all crea­tures — the wild­ness we honor in our breath and our blood, that wild­ness that keeps us on this spin­ning planet.”

This lovely, wise book is il­lus­trated with black and white paint­ings that are child­like in their sim­plic­ity — the big eyes of the bor­der col­lie, the smile of the pig — mak­ing this ap­pear to be a book for chil­dren. It could be. But it could also be a book for any­one who has ever been en­tranced by an­other liv­ing crea­ture. (Bor­der col­lie lovers, be­ware: You will need Kleenex. Every­one else should be OK.)

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