Author and Naturalist Sy Montgomery

Jul 22, 2019

Sy Montgomery, author of 28 books, including the recent How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals, and The Magnificent Migration: On Safari with Africa's Last Great Herds, talks about her work, her life, and the importance of learning from animals. 

Montgomery recently appeared at the New England Aquarium to talk about How to Be a Good Creature. You can watch a video of that talk here

Transcript:

This is a computer-generated transcript, and may contain errors. 

Laura Knoy:

From New Hampshire Public Radio, I'm Laura Knoy and this is The Exchange.

Our guest today has always connected with animals and not just cute fluffy puppies or calves with gentle brown eyes. She's also immensely enjoyed spending time with tarantulas, pigs, octopuses, emus and a host of other creatures calling these animals her friends and even more importantly, her teachers. We're talking with naturalist and author Sy Montgomery this hour. She's written more than a dozen books about animal behavior, emotions, intelligence and their relationships with people. It's an approach that's brought her an award winning career and some incredible adventures around the world, including most recently to the Serengeti for her latest book, The Magnificent Migration on Safari with Africa's Last Great Herds. Today, The Exchange naturalist and author Sy Montgomery is here and your questions are welcome. Our email is exchange at NHPR.org. Once again, exchange at NHPR.org. Use Facebook or Twitter at @nhprexchange or call in 1 800 8 9 2 6 4 7 7 and sigh.

Laura Knoy:
It's really great to see you. Thank you so much for coming in.

Sy Montgomery:
I'm thrilled to be here.

Laura Knoy:
So what do you see in animals side that you suspect most people do not?

Sy Montgomery:
Well, I think many of us do see animals as. I think we are attracted to animals naturally. I think, you know, we were hunter gatherers until very recently. And so a hunter gatherer that didn't pay attention to the natural world was soon eaten by someone else in the natural world or else couldn't find their food. But I do think you're right that art, our culture turns that off and encourages us to concentrate on only one species. But to me, that's like impoverishing yourself by only eating one food or only listening to one song or only seeing in one color.

Sy Montgomery:
So I've always been attracted to the other because of their their other powers. And I guess that the one thing that I always see, I think in every animal is an opportunity to learn something from them instead of what our culture kind of whacks us over the head with this idea that really has been disproven, that we're the only important and the wisest Homo sapiens, that we're the only species that matters and that just isn't so.

Laura Knoy:
I'm definitely gonna ask you about what you've learned from animals. And I want to let listeners know it's more than just, oh, did you know that a tarantula can do this? There's a lot more there. And it's deeper. It's it's spiritual. But just a little bit about you sigh because again, you've had this amazing career. You've written and studied, you know, a dozen, two dozen animals from all aspects of the animal kingdom. But you yourself say I grew up in a very strict household. You weren't camping on the weekends. You weren't, you know, going out hiking or living on a farm. Your parents had clear expectations. They want to be part of the country club, upper echelons of the military elite. Your dad was a general. You had other ideas, as is clear sky. What did the animal kingdom offer you as a child or as a young woman that the human kingdom just did not?

Sy Montgomery:
Well, growing up as as a little girl on the on the post, I guess I was I was lucky. I was an only I was an only child. And I wasn't much distracted by other children because they kind of weren't around except in school. And I went to a school are off the base. So my friends from school were too far away to play with really after school. And the kids on the base didn't want to play with the general's daughter.

Laura Knoy:
So that's interesting because he was sort of the head of everything and it was a little intimidating to play with you.

Sy Montgomery:
I think, you know, if your kid clanged the general's daughter over the head with the army truck. Well, you know, your dad could be doing KP for the next two years.

Sy Montgomery:
So you know, I think that might have been it, but that I feel lucky because what that did was it shifted my focus away from just my own species. And I got to look at crickets and bees. And you see growing up, because I never even really thought I was a person for a long time as a little kid. I announced to my parents as soon as I could speak that I was a horse and my mother was very worried about this. So she took me off to the pediatrician and he said, don't worry, that's gonna wear off. And it did when I realized I really was a dog. And but then I had this like terrible problem in that everyone wanted to teach me how to be a little girl.

Sy Montgomery:
Nobody was there to help me learn to be what I really wanted to be, which was a dog until Molly, our first dog, came into my life. And in her I found a soulmate, a teacher, an older sister who I wanted to emulate. And I wanted, you know, she was a Scottish terrier and who doesn't want to be like a Scottish terrier. They're ferocious. They are. They're small. And they don't know that they're small. They totally don't.

Sy Montgomery:
Dorothy Parker even commented that when a Scottish terrier meets a car, a car knows it has met a worthy opponent. So, you know, she was fierce and feral and unstoppable. And that's what I wanted to be. I did not want to be the general's daughter in the frilly socks and the beautiful dress that my mother had a hand sewn to look like hers. What I wanted to do was poke my head into holes and smell all the information about the wild animals and learn about all the great wide world out there of other creatures.

Sy Montgomery:
And in fact, this is what I've done with my life. Thanks to Molly.

Laura Knoy:
So she taught you getting into the lessons she taught you to be yourself?

Sy Montgomery:
Yes. She showed me what I wanted to be. I mean, I didn't know the path to get there, but the first step. As you know, is to know what you want to be.

Laura Knoy:
What else have animals taught you Sy? Is a lot of lessons in your latest book, by the way, How to Be a Good Creature?

Sy Montgomery:
Well, I think they've taught me all the things that we all struggle with, really. I mean, Molly showed me what was my my destiny, you know. And three emus showed me how to get there. You can't go to college and study jungle exploration, but I followed three emus to find that path. Animals also showed me how to how to make a family, because, as you know, a loving family isn't just made out of. Genetics, it's not made out of blood, it's not made out of marrying the right person of the right religion or sex or race. It can be made out of. Many others who you love. And for me, it was someone with a flexible nose disc and a curly bell who showed me.

Laura Knoy:
Christopher the pig.

Sy Montgomery:
Yes. Christopher Hogwood. He really showed me how you make a family and animals also showed me how to forgive animals showed me how when you're despairing to fall back in love with life again. Animals showed me the depth and breadth of this surprising, amazing, astounding world and showed me how to love little lives as well as big ones. I mean, animals gave me everything.

Sy Montgomery:
And I'm not the only person who has found that, and it's not really that unusual when you consider that humans have lots to teach us, but they're just one species. And if you open your eyes and your mind and your heart to all these other species, just think of all the teachers that you're going to find surrounding you every single day of your life.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and I'm so glad you said that. Open your mind and your heart to the lessons that these teachers all around us, whether they're adorable dogs or pigs or not, the pigs aren't adorable. But could animals teach some of those same lessons that you mentioned? Sy. You know how to forgive, how to make a family, how to move on after loss. Could they teach those same lessons to somebody less open or less connected to the animal world than you are? You're sort of you're already ready to receive those messages. Your antenna are up. Most people maybe aren't quite ready to receive them. So I'm just watching what you think about that.

Sy Montgomery:
Well, I consider dogs the gateway drug. A lot of people agree with dogs or cats. You know, so many of us have a dog or a cat. And if we didn't have a dog or a cat, we know someone who has a dog or cat who they love. And what's odd to me is how people can love their dog, love their cat, but want to eradicate wolves and coyotes and get rid of bobcats and Pumas.

Sy Montgomery:
But to me, if you really know the animal for who they are, they will prior heart open for you. Just trust in what they have to show you. And dogs and cats, even fish. And when I say even fish, fish actually have a lot going on.

Sy Montgomery:
They they are much smarter than we think. Goldfish do not have a memory of 30 seconds. They have a memory that can last for years. Some goldfish can live for 30 or 40 years. They regulate. Nice. Oh, yeah. They recognize individuals. Fish totally feel pain. Some people were saying, oh, they don't. Well, of course they feel pain because what could be more adaptive than feeling pain?

Sy Montgomery:
It's like, oh, a lion is eating my foot off. How you're supposed to know that.

Laura Knoy:
You have a central nervous system, right?

Sy Montgomery:
Yeah. Course pain. Right. But see, all of these other things, such as emotion, emotion also has adaptive value. And we have found when we when we look for the neurotransmitters that accompany our emotions of happiness, sadness, love, fear, all of those neurotransmitters, when we look in other species, we find those identical neurotransmitters, identical or so similar that they are are almost molecularly that the same, including in taxa that are related to us. Only if you go back half a billion years. I was astonished in octopuses the last time we shared a common ancestor with the octopus. Everybody was a tube. There were no eyes. You know, there was. There was your digestive system that was like it.

Sy Montgomery:
So that's the last time we shared a common ancestor with them. But they have a hormone. So like our oxytocin, the cuddle hormone, the love hormone that we've all heard about. They have a hormone. So like that, it's called cephalotocin for cephalopods. And these animals. They lay eggs. They don't give birth as we do. We release huge amounts of oxytocin when we nurse our babies. They're not mammals. They don't nurse their babies. If they can. If they live long enough, they will use their last breaths to blow their hatching parrot larvae out of there. They're dead, but they still have these same neurotransmitters and hormones that we do. So emotion is very widespread across animal kingdoms. We really are very similar in a lot of ways. And there's so many points of connection.

Laura Knoy:
I have so many more questions for you about those points of connection that you've studied and that you've experienced personally silent. We invite our listeners to join us. The phone number here in The Exchange is 1 800 8 9 2 6 4 7 7. Today in exchange, we're sitting down with writer and naturalist Sy Montgomery. She's an award winning New Hampshire based author and more than a dozen books on animal behavior, intelligence and on the friendships between animals and people. Among her latest books are How to Be a Good Creature and the Magnificent Migration. I will also be speaking Thursday at the New England Aquarium in a free lecture. She will be talking about her latest book, The. That was last Thursday.

Laura Knoy:
I got that wrong. Sy. I apologize. You'll have to tell me by that of everyone. Please go to the aquarium. You're going to have a blast and are. It's a wonderful play. You'll have to tell us how that how that lecture went. This shows you how quickly the summer has gone that I thought it was.

Laura Knoy:
I thought it was this week. Anyway, listeners. It's your chance to talk with Sy Montgomery. Our phone number again, 1 800 8 9 2 6 4 7 7. Our email is exchange at NHPR.org. Once again, exchange at an age PR dot org.

Laura Knoy:
So say you're talking a lot about the emotions of animals and the intelligence of animals, but you work with scientists. You're not just going out there, you know, hugging octopuses and pigs and dogs and saying, you know, these creatures are amazing, aren't they? You're working with scientists out in the field. You've gone all over the world. How do the scientists that you work with Sy feel about your approach, which is. Yes, definitely study the lifecycle and the amazing superpowers that some of these animals, they can do incredible things, but also study their hearts and minds. How do the scientists that you work with react to that?

Sy Montgomery:
Well, now there's a whole big field of study of animal minds and a huge amount of data is now being amassed on this. And we have all kinds of exciting tools that we could use that were not previously available to us. For example, putting dogs in a CAT scan or putting caps on the dogs. Right. If we can see when we put a dog and a CAT scan. And the reason that we put dogs and not cats is that you can usually ask the dog to do it and it will do that's usually don't do what you look at will shoot out of there like a bullet. But border collies, for example, are frequently used because they and of course,.

Sy Montgomery:
I have a border collie and I admire them very much. But yeah, they they will stay when you ask them to. And you look at what's going on in their brains, you show them a picture of their owner or show them something that smells like they're their owner. And the same area of their brain will light up as a person when they're thinking about someone who they love. We also you know, we can we can look at neurotransmitters, which we could not before you can look in the blood and see the stress levels that an animal is experiencing. You can look in the blood and see if there is a ton of oxytocin in there indicating that, you know, the animal is happy and feeling affiliation with those that they're around. So scientists are starting to come around and and not deny that animals have thoughts and feelings.

Sy Montgomery:
However, there is a long tradition of ignoring this. And this goes back to even when Jane Goodall went into the field in 1960 to study the chimpanzees of Ghanbi When she went into the field, she was not trained as a scientist. And when she was writing her first article about chimpanzees using tools, nobody wanted to publish it because she named her study Animals. And it was believed you shouldn't name them because they're like rocks, they should be numbered. So that tradition is old and entrenched.

Sy Montgomery:
And so, of course, there are some scientists who feel that we shouldn't be talking about animals, thoughts and feelings. But the scientists that I tend to work with, if you really talk with them, they love their study animals. They love them, whether they're a chimpanzee or an axle model, you know, which is a what is that? I'm sorry. It's that it's like a salamander type guy. They're really cool, though. They can grow back severed limbs like octopuses can, and they're really, really interesting. Most people who study animals. Fall in love with the animal if they aren't studying them for the first place because they were already in love. So I find I meet a lot of kindred spirits when I when I work in the field.

Laura Knoy:
Presumably as scientists wouldn't invite Sy Montgomery to come along and you've been on many, many adventures, presumably wouldn't invite you to come along if they didn't have that that sensibility side that these animals are thinking, feeling beings.

Sy Montgomery:
Right. And also, when it when I choose what book I'm going to write next, I'm going to choose somebody who really loves their animal and doesn't want to just smoosh them up and study their juice. When I when I said I wanted to write a book, for example, about tarantulas, I mean, who wouldn't? Right. I mean, me. But that's OK. Well, I with Nick Bishop, I founded the series for Houghton Mifflin called Scientists in the Field for Younger Readers. And you totally get to pick who you want to write about. But I usually pick the animal first. And I knew that for reluctant readers, i.e. boys, what one animal that would totally get them excited would be tarantulas because they're so cool.

Sy Montgomery:
So I picked someone who loved his tarantula, Sam Marshall. Well, I had a blast.

Laura Knoy:
That's a perfect segue. Way to what we'll talk about after this short break, Sy. Because while it's easy to be, you know, emotional about our cats and our dogs and our horses, maybe our ferrets, tarantulas, octopuses, he moves a little tougher. So we'll definitely talk about what you learned is some fascinating research there. And we'll start taking your calls at 1 800 8 9 2 6 4 7 7. E-mail us your questions for Sy Montgomery, its exchange at NHPR.org. Once again, exchange at NHPR.org. And we'll be right back.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange, I'm Laura Knoy today. Sy Montgomery, award winning author, more than a dozen books on animals and her friendships with them. Her latest books are How to Be a Good Creature and the Magnificent Migration. She's also the author of the acclaimed books The Good, Good Pig and the Soul of an Octopus. Let's get your questions in for Sy Montgomery. What do you think about some of the ideas that she puts out there in her books, that animals are her greatest teachers? That we have a lot to learn about animal thinking and animal intelligence. We love your thoughts, questions, comments at 1 800 8 9 2 6 4 7 7. Email exchange at an HP ya dot org. Sigh. I know you've been asked many times about this, but I do have to ask you, people sometimes say are you anthropomorphizing Sy Montgomery these creatures by talking about their emotions, their intelligence. How do you answer that? Sy That you're you're talking so much about affection and admiration is going a little too far.

Sy Montgomery:
Well, anthropomorphism, of course, means that you're projecting onto animals human abilities. Well, we now know science has proven that humans are not the only ones with memories, with thoughts, with emotions, cetera. So we know that animals do have these abilities. They're not human abilities alone. Now, it is true that it's easy to project onto someone else, even another human thoughts and feelings that we wish they had.

Sy Montgomery:
I mean, who hasn't asked someone out on a date who didn't want to go or bought someone a present that they really didn't like? I mean, we do that all the time. We project how this person will react. And sometimes we're utterly wrong. Exactly. And that's very possible with animals. It can totally happen with animals. And it does. I mean, there was some veterinarian who walked in with a Tasmanian devil at the zoo and loved the Tasmanian devil and felt like a look. The Tassie is so calm with me, it's yawning.

Sy Montgomery:
Well, it wasn't yawning. What it was doing was a gape threat, telling the vet to back off.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, my Goodness.

Sy Montgomery:
Right. So, you know, sometimes we misread what animals are are trying to say to us, and we have to realize that their agenda may not be the same as ours. Otherwise fish would try to escape from the water and hyenas would not want to roll and vomit. So, you know, they they have other ideas. And if you know their Anna malady, it makes perfect sense. What they want to do and it makes perfect sense that what they want to do and what they would think in a certain situation would be different from what we think.

Laura Knoy:
Do you see yourself Sy, as kind of a bridge between sort of hard old school science and newer concepts about animals?

Laura Knoy:
You know, you're trying to bridge the gap, so to speak.

Sy Montgomery:
I'd be honored to be counted among the people that are doing that. And lots of us, lots of us writers and scientists and humane educators and the folks who works at at zoos and aquariums. I mean, I think we're all we're all trying to advance that agenda. I think that many of us as children understood the truth of the fact that animals do think and feel and know and what they think and feel and know is important. But it got driven out of us and never got driven out of me. And I've been lucky enough to to have friends all my life who understood that some of those friends were human and some of them weren't.

Laura Knoy:
We're going to talk about some of those friends in a moment, including the pig, the octopus, the dogs, the tarantula.

Laura Knoy:
But let's go to our listeners. Sy again, our number, 1 800 8 9 2 6 4 7 7. What questions or comments do you have assigned Montgomery? And if you've read some of her books, of course, we'd love to hear from you as well. The number 1 800 8 9 2 6 4 7 7 email exchange at an HP bar dot org site. Michael writes, How can you be sure you're measuring something that is fundamentally unknowable to human beings, i.e. what it means to be a sad octopus? Michael says, What steps do you take to keep from projecting concepts of human consciousness into your study animals? I.e., what guards do you have in place to keep you from anthropomorphizing your subjects? Michael, it's a great question. I think I think you've kind of talked about this cyber. Let's talk about it some more. Measuring something that is fundamentally unknowable to human beings.

Sy Montgomery:
Well, we do know when animals like something, they approach it. We know when animals dislike something, they go away from it. I back off. Right. And that's for sure. In Seattle Aquarium, they did an experiment to see if their octopuses recognized individual humans and that. Seems like it would be unknowable, but it wasn't what they did. And this is just one example of an experiment that I thought was set up very elegantly was. They had two sets of volunteers. They were always identically dressed and they dealt with. They are always each set of volunteers dealt with the same octopuses.

Sy Montgomery:
So one set of volunteers would always give an octopus a delicious fish. Another set would always touch the octopus with the bristly stick. Of course, they liked the delicious fish and didn't like the bristly stick. So just looking up at the people one day they asked the people to leave the bristly stick in the tasty fish at home, and the octopuses approached those who had given them just by looking at their face. They could recognize the face looking up through the water, and they always approached those who had given them the tasty fish, and they always jetted away from those who would touch them with bristly stick. But sometimes they would first blast that person in the face with freezing cold.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, my Gosh.

Sy Montgomery:
Water! And another thing that the ones that would leave would do as they would often make an ice bar, which is a camouflage technique to make the eye appear larger than it is, which makes the animal appear larger than it is, which reasonably can be understood as the the animal perceives some kind of threat and wants the threatening being to think they are bigger than they are. So those were things that that were pretty certain that showed the octopuses liked the people who'd given them fish and disliked being touched with virtually stick. Now, what does liking someone feel like to an octopus? Michael's point is excellent.

Laura Knoy:
How do you measure it?

Sy Montgomery:
Well, I mean, it's in some cases you can measure things like cortisol, a stress hormone. You can measure that in animals and peoples blood. Water policies have cortisol. I know mammals. Do you know what I'm I'm almost absolutely certain. But I don't remember the paper on that. But I'm pretty sure I have a stress hormone. And they certainly do. They certainly do. They also have cephalotocin, which which can also be measured,.

Laura Knoy:
The relaxant hormone.

Sy Montgomery:
Right. Or the social affiliation kind of hormone. This is what we what spikes in humans when we give birth. When we nurse, when we kiss. When we are with those that we that we love that spikes. And so we know that they they have this. But what we don't know is what Joy feels like to them or sadness feels like to them. But I also don't really know what Joy feels like to you.

Laura Knoy:
Well, I was just thinking that and I don't know what Joy feels like to you exactly. I can describe how it feels to me, but exactly might be totally different.

Sy Montgomery:
Remember when you were little and figured out like, oh, my gosh, I call that color green and someone else calls that color green. But are we seeing the same color? And frequently we're not. We know this because some people are red, green, colorblind.

Sy Montgomery:
Well, speaking of Michael's question about how do you measure and Michael hope that answers it a little bit for you anyway. The octopuses that you studied also turned color sigh right when they are experiencing different emotions. I feel unqualified to use that word with octopuses because I'm not a scientist. But tell us about the colors that octopuses change when they're experiencing different things.

Sy Montgomery:
Well, we do know that they turn bright red, at least giant Pacific octopuses, 250 more or more species of octopus in the world. But giant Pacific octopus is definitely turned bright red when they're excited. Now, they might be excited because they're angry. They might be excited because they're happy to see you. But just like a person who flushes red, a flush red with excitement, we also know that when they are calm or when they are dead, they turn white so that they turn lots of other colors and they can make patterns on their skin and they can do this according to what the situation calls for. For example, they can do a thing called passing cloud in which it looks like a dark cloud is passing over them. They can cause those that pattern to pass over them, which will make a prey item think nobody's there, no one's there, or that a cloud is passing over. They can fool other species into thinking they are something that they are not. They can appear to be a piece of coral or a piece of algae.

Sy Montgomery:
There's a fabulous video that Michael Hanlon took of a piece of algae that suddenly becomes an octopus and jets away. I mean, it is totally a piece of algae. But then from the algae appears what is obviously an octopus. You would never know. And one of the most miraculous things about this is that octopuses have been found to be colorblind.

Laura Knoy:
They also I learned from reading your books.

Laura Knoy:
They like to play. Yeah, they play with Legos.

Sy Montgomery:
Yes, they love to play with the same stuff. We like to play with you know, they play with Mr. Potato Head and they they like puzzle other they will sometimes put it together. They will sometimes there is one octopus who took the eyes out of Mr. Potato Head and gave them to a sea star in its tank. I don't know if it was male or female octopus, but the Sea Star then took the eyes and put them under his arms and started walking her like he was on crutches or something. Very cute.

Sy Montgomery:
And, you know, who knows what's in the mind of a Sea Star because they technically don't have a brain, but like the octopus that can't see color.

Sy Montgomery:
I mean, who knows with these brainless animals, maybe experience two octopuses have brains. Oh, yeah, they have brains much like it. Here's the funny thing. They sound smart. Quote unquote. They're super smart, but their brain doesn't look like a human brain at all. It's a ring around their throat. So a lot of times when scientists are looking at something and trying to make some decision about how its life is going, they might look at an octopus brain and say, oh, they don't even have one because it doesn't look like ours. And this was the case with birds, for example. Birds were thought to be birdbrain. They were sort thought to be very stupid. That's a huge taxonomic group that was being dismissed as stupid. Well, we now know that they're very intelligent, that they they can speak our language meaningfully when they want to, at least parrots, can they?

Sy Montgomery:
Many birds appreciate beat. They can perceive and synchronize with a beat, which is a very detailed and sophisticated cognitive trait. But it was because people didn't understand their brain and didn't understand the parts of their brains that didn't look like ours. And such is the case with an octopus. And what's most astounding about the octopus brain is that most of the neurons aren't even in their brain. Most of our neurons are in our brain, but most of their neurons are in their arms.

Laura Knoy:
They're all spread out.

Sy Montgomery:
Yeah.

Laura Knoy:
So in a way, instead of having it all in your brain, having it all spread out over that huge eight armed body might make your emotional life even more interesting.

Sy Montgomery:
Certainly can be. And they are you know, their arms can if they're severed in some evil comes along by your arm off your arm can go off and do stuff and it can go do kind of intelligence stuff. It can actually catch prey. But eventually the octopuses, three hearts are not supplying blood to that wandering arm anymore and the arm will die. But imagine what selfhood feels like to somebody. Almost like separate brains in a job. They don't really have separate brains in each arm, but there is. Scientists have found that there are some bold arms and some shy arms and an octopus. I mean, imagine this. So it boggles the mind. Boggles our mind. It doesn't boggle theirs.

Laura Knoy:
Let's go back to our listeners Sy. We could talk about the octopuses forever. That's really, really interesting and opens up your mind to just different ways of thinking and being.

Sy Montgomery:
Yeah.

Laura Knoy:
To our listeners Wally he's calling from Kensington. And hi, Wally, go ahead. You're on the air. Thanks for calling in today.

Caller:
Right. Fascinating show. That being where you are talking about animals regenerating limbs and stuff. If you've done any studies with lobsters and stuff.

Laura Knoy:
Regenerate. OK. So animals regenerating limbs and so forth, Wally. Looking at lobsters and other animals, it's actually a great question and one I've kind of wondered about myself.

Sy Montgomery:
Boy, I don't know how much lobsters can regenerate, but a number of animals can regenerate limbs. And people are very interested in this for obvious for obvious reasons, because all of us at one point shared a common ancestor. So it's possible that somewhere hidden in our genes, there's a way to turn this on. And people.

Sy Montgomery:
I think that would be fabulous.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and right now in Manchester, there's the ARMI. A R M I. The Regenerative Tissue Manufacturing Institute. So there's some there's a bond there or an area of interest, so to speak.

Sy Montgomery:
Yeah, absolutely.

Laura Knoy:
What we're looking at for ourselves and what these animals can do.

Sy Montgomery:
Yeah. They do it in different ways, too.

Sy Montgomery:
I mean, the the octopus, for example, when it regenerates an arm, it that arm is a perfect replica of the original. Now when lizards, for example, anomalous lizards, when they lose their tail, the tail they grow back is not a perfect replica of what it was. So they're doing it in a different way. And I'm sure that something ARMI's is looking at very carefully.

Sy Montgomery:
Animals have to teach us.

Laura Knoy:
Well. And I think in one of your books, you mentioned that talking with people who work with undersea animals and that the octopus was sort of your first foray into this side.

Laura Knoy:
Somebody told you. Oh, yeah. Every lobster in that tank has a different personality. I personality I feel when I say it, personality for a lobster.

Sy Montgomery:
Absolutely.

Sy Montgomery:
Well, you know, it's funny what we recognize as a personality that may be different from one an act octopus or a lobster or, you know, or a bird even sees. But yeah, that was Wilson Menashi who said that to me. He's one of the main characters, the book and my dear friend. And he used to care for the baby lobsters. That New England Aquarium is growing as part of various experiments. And some of those lobsters were bold and would crawl out of their tank and eat a lobster next door. Others were shy. Some of them would immediately reach for you with their claws to threaten you, even when they were tiny little lobsters and and and others would hold back. So, yeah, they they are different. Totally different. And there's aspects of our personalities that even our friends don't see in our own species. It's hard sometimes to to catalog in another species aspects of its personality that to a cause specific to a fellow lobster would be quite obvious.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and our producer team on The Exchange looked up while we were talking about regenerating limbs and so forth for lobsters. And they looked it up and it turns out lobsters can regenerate legs, claws and. And. That's. Oh, there you go. Alan sent us an email. How can we adopt your view of creatures to help get over fear of, for example, spiders? Alan says, I know they are amazing creatures, but I have a fear nonetheless. Alan, thank you so much. Because you write sci that being afraid of spiders isn't something we're born with, but it's a darn easy trait to acquire.

Sy Montgomery:
Yes, it totally is.

Sy Montgomery:
And I don't blame you, Alan, because unlike other fears, fears of spiders and snakes are extremely easy to turn on. Years ago, researchers did a unethical experiment in which they taught children to be afraid of things, and it was very easy to teach them to be afraid of spiders and snakes. But they could also teach children to be afraid of flowers and candy. Really? Yes.

Sy Montgomery:
All you do is you pair it with a bad stimulus and also it helps to have an adult looking horrified. Anyway, I'd say the best way to come to love a spider would be meet a nice spider and get to know them and let them be your teacher. Well, and after a short break, we can maybe talk a little bit more about the nice spider that you met.

Laura Knoy:
And Alan, I'm with you. I had a hard time reading that chapter. So we'll talk about that after a short break. And we'll keep taking your calls, questions, e-mails. Our e-mail address is exchange at NHPR.org, exchange at an HP port org. Give us a call 1 800 8 9 2 6 4 7 7. We'll be right back.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange, I'm Laura Knoy and Exchange listeners. We hope you can join us at one of our coffee and community events this summer. You can tell us what's happening in your part of the state. We'll be in Littleton next Wednesday to kick it off. July 30, first at noon at the inkwell, coffee and tea house. Go to our Web site and HP Laura Knoy slash exchange or to our Facebook page for more details. Back to our conversation with naturalist and best selling author Sy Montgomery. And we've been hearing from you. Our email address. If you want to join our conversation exchange at NHPR.org or give us a call 1 800 8 9 2 6 4 7 7 and sigh. Just before the break, we got a great e-mail from Alan who said, I'm afraid of spiders. I know it's a learned behavior, not an inherent feeling. And you talked about how it's very easy to train people to be afraid of spiders. It doesn't take much because. Well, this is my interpretation.

Laura Knoy:
Lots of legs and lots of eyes. It just doesn't seem right. But but you fell in love with a spider. She became your teacher named Clara Bell. Tell us about Clara Bell. She's such a great tarantula.

Sy Montgomery:
I was doing a book called The Tarantula Scientist and went with the world's top expert on tarantulas to perhaps the tarantula capital of the world, French Guiana, which has tons of species of these beautiful spiders everywhere.

Laura Knoy:
And where is French Guiana?

Sy Montgomery:
It's in South America. It's near Suriname. It is on the top of the beautiful rainforest country. And of course, the best thing about it is that it has so many tarantula species anyway.

Sy Montgomery:
It is. We were looking for the largest tarantula species, the giant Goliath birdied or tarantula, which weighs a quarter pound. And whose legs could cover your face.

Laura Knoy:
Hopefully not.

Sy Montgomery:
But this is one of the species of tarantula that you don't want to pick up because some some species are more fearful of humans and they will give you a bad bite. But some species of tarantulas are very gentle and one of them is called the pink toad tarantula. And this looks like an elegant black beauty who just had a French pedicure. She has the tips of all of her eight legs, is tipped in this beautiful pink color. And she basically isn't going to bite you unless you do something really stupid. So Sam Marshall, the scientist who is working with me and Nick Bishop was always looking for trash, was everywhere. So he looked in a potted plant at the place where we were staying, a lovely little nature center, and found a beautiful pink toad tarantula in there. And he urged her out of the leaves of the plant and onto his hand. How did he do that? Well, you can do it by putting like a a painter, a pencil in back of the animal and gently nudging it towards your open palm.

Sy Montgomery:
Pretty much the same way you would nudge like a baby turtle. We all used to have baby turtles. I'm, you know, 61 years old. So we all had baby turtles. And if you wanted them to move forward in your hands, that's what you did. And that's pretty much how you handle a tarantula. What you don't want to do with a tarantula is reach down on them from above because that's what a predator does when they're going to try to eat them. So if you let the tarantula just roam over your hands or walk up your arm or sit on your head, that tarantula will happily do that. And it's not going to bite you. It's not going to attack you. And interestingly, Sam Marshall at his tarantula lab had 500 different species of tarantulas. And every time he'd walk in that room, all of them would turn around and orient toward the door that he had just walked through. They would not do that for anyone else.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, so wasn't just they heard a noise. They felt a presence. They felt sam's presence.

Sy Montgomery:
They knew Sam. And that sounds so oovie groovy.

Laura Knoy:
That really does.

Sy Montgomery:
But he is a trained scientist and this is something that he observed. It was really amazing anyway. I think it's entirely possible that tarantulas can learn to recognize people and they probably recognize us in a different way.

Sy Montgomery:
They can taste with their feet. And they may be able to taste each individual person I see. As you're walking on that outstretched hand. That's right. That's right. And, you know, some people would feel odd if they were being, you know, not just felt but tasted on first meeting. But for a tarantula, that's the way you meet them. And she was she was a very calm, sweet tarantula. And she seemed. Perhaps because she was so large and because she was so furry, she seemed like a little furry animal, like a chipmunk. So she wasn't scary at all. I think folks like like Alan, I would suggest you take a look at what bothers you about spiders. Is it that there's their little. Then try a big one. Is that that they they scurry quickly, then try to meet a slower one? Because what Clara Bell taught me was I hadn't really given spiders a lot of thought in the past. I hadn't appreciated them. But. Because she was large, because she was furry, because she was friendly. I got to realize, you know, these animals also have personalities. These animals also have agendas and they're single, glorious, precious. Life may mean as much to them as mine means to me.

Laura Knoy:
So we shouldn't judge them as better or worse or more scary than our adorable puppy waiting for us at home.

Sy Montgomery:
Right. But of course, you know, your puppy wants to be scratch behind the ears, but you can't do that with a spider because they don't have any ears. And also they may not want that. And, you know, I've I'm sure at some point in my life, a spider has has bitten me. They can bite, but so can you. So can your puppy.

Sy Montgomery:
They all have a place in this in this world. And our lives just become so much more rich and glorious when we appreciate. The the lives around us.

Let's take another call sigh and lots of e-mails coming in, too, which is great. Again, our phone number 1 800 8 9 2 6 4 7 7. Email us exchange at an HP Traurig and to Newcastle where Rebecca is on the line. Hi, Rebecca. Go ahead. You're on with Sy Montgomery. Hi.

Caller:
Hi Sy

Sy Montgomery:
Hi, Rebecca.

Caller:
I love your book and I'm of the same mind as you regarding animals. I just love how you talk about them and how they have feelings and everything. And you acknowledge that I've learned so much from my animals and observing birds. In fact, bird allergy is one of my favorite books that you've written.

Sy Montgomery:
Oh, thank you.

Caller:
I'd love to do what you do, but I do the next best thing, which is I teach elementary school kids.

Caller:
So I'm just wondering if I have any other auto recommendations for elementary school age kids, books that they could enjoy to read about animals.

Laura Knoy:
Rebecca, thank you so much. Go ahead Sy.

Sy Montgomery:
Well, let's see. I've written 11 books in the series, Scientists in the Field, which kids from about grade four and up can read.

Sy Montgomery:
And I've written a few one, two, three, four, maybe four or five other books for four younger readers.

Sy Montgomery:
All of all of the books that I I do have lots of of photos in them to entice kids.

Sy Montgomery:
In fact, when Nick Bishop came up with me with the idea of the scientists and field series, we wanted it to be half photos and half text because the photos really draw young people in. And so even if if you're not reading and you're just looking at pictures. Those are those are fun books for kids to have. It was thought when we first when our first book came out, 1999 was 99. Yeah, it came out in 1999. And that was the snake scientist. And for that, I got to work in a pit with 18000 snakes, which was wonderful.

Sy Montgomery:
And everyone was like, oh, no one's gonna bite. But kids loved it.

Sy Montgomery:
And they were drawn in to to read it because they loved snakes. And same with the tarantulas and the tapers and the pink dolphins and cheetahs and snow leopards and tree kangaroos and all the other creatures that I've written about. I think many kids in the the age group that you teach are just automatically in love with animals. And I'm so glad that you are there to feed that love.

Laura Knoy:
Thank you so much for the call, Rebecca. And lots of e-mails that I'd love to share with you, Sy. Paula from Merrimack writes about spiders. She says, I live alone. Well, not totally. I have made friends with the spiders in my house. I call them all Mary. And I talk to them like Mary. I don't want to step on you. Some move over. I have heard that spiders actually here not just feel vibrations and see. So I know they hear me and they are good company. Spiders do see pretty well, I would guess. Right. They've got eight eyes.

Sy Montgomery:
Many have incredible eyes. Many of them do. Not all.

Sy Montgomery:
Some are blind. Oh yeah. Because there's there's thousands of species of spiders there. I guess one of God's favorites.

Sy Montgomery:
So. Yeah.

Sy Montgomery:
And they're super sensitive. They have all kinds of senses that that we can't even imagine.

Sy Montgomery:
And abilities like, you know, making a web. Can you imagine being able to do that to pull this stuff out of your own body that stretch here than than elastic and strong enough to stop a speeding bullet stronger than Kevlar? And I am so delighted that all of your memories are listening to your Hail Marys.

Laura Knoy:
Thanks a lot for the e-mail, Paula. And I'd love to talk more about spiders, but I want to read this email from Michael about crows. Michael says, I saw a story about a murder of crows in a city. Number of crows means a flock or a group, right? Doesn't right. People were killing crows that would kick snow from light poles onto pedestrians as they passed underneath. The crows would then all cackle of the pedestrian would pass under the next light pole. The next crow would kick snow onto the pedestrian again and again, and so on and so forth. The crows cackling each time, Michael says, are crows jerks? Michael, I know that's your next book, Sy.

Sy Montgomery:
That's a great title. Are crows jerks! They they have a great sense of humor.

Sy Montgomery:
But when you look at what we consider humorous, Mel Brooks once says, funny is you hurt yourself serious? Is I hurt myself? So I think they just have a sense of humor and they are used to using humans to provide them with entertainment and entertainment. Yes, just like my female. Yes, exactly.

Sy Montgomery:
And when in one area, crows have learned to understand traffic lights and understand that cars go forward with the red light with a I'm sorry, maybe in some areas they go with a red light.

Sy Montgomery:
Should they go forward with the green light and stop with it with the red light? Recently, walnuts were introduced as a crop in Japan and crows would love to eat the walnut meat. They figured out that if you bring the the the walnut in its shell to the front of the line of cars who are stopped at a traffic light when the light is red. Yeah. When the light is red. When the light is green, the cars will open the walnut for them. While that's brilliant, it is brilliant.

Sy Montgomery:
So they're they're diabolically smart. Well, that's the thing.

Laura Knoy:
And we humans, you know, we say these things offhandedly, like, oh, a lot of birds are dumb. Crows are smart. I can feel that you might want to push back on that side. On the other hand, the story about the crows makes me think maybe they are kind of smarter than some other.

Sy Montgomery:
They are very smart.

Sy Montgomery:
But to counter the jerk crow, there are also crows who bring their people little presents. And there was a little girl who fed fed strips of meat to a particular crow, and the crows started bringing her presence. Really nice presence. It wasn't like when you're your dog, you're your cat brings you the severed head of a mouse you really long want, but she would get like shiny bits of someone's dropped bracelet or I mean, it was all stuff that she would like, you know, little bits of glittery items and they were gifts. So crows can be kind to us as well.

Laura Knoy:
Well, Michael, that goes down as one of my favorite emails of the week for sure. That was great. Thank you so much. Jeannie from Tamworth says, I want to know if there's a difference in the brain of the, quote, smarter dog breeds as we're talking about birds, smarter dog breeds as compared to others. Genius. Scuse me. Yeah. Jeannie says, My border collies over the years have always seemed innately smart.

Laura Knoy:
Smart, as opposed to just being trainable. Boy, you could talk about that for an hour because some people say animals aren't smart, they're instinctive and trainable. So each of these words has its own sort of value judgment to it.

Sy Montgomery:
Well, gosh, I have a I have a border collie to my husband. I have had. Re border collies and your experience is exactly that of mine. They don't just do what you tell them. They figure other things out. Our previous border collie to our current one was named Sally, and we would always say that she would do everything we asked and so much more. It was so much more.

Sy Montgomery:
That was a problem because she would get it into her head. That's something else needed to be done and you would do it.

Sy Montgomery:
I have heard of border collies who would sulk for days if the their owner shepherd had mess something up causing them to lose at the border collie trials.

Laura Knoy:
Really?

Sy Montgomery:
I have heard of border collies...

Laura Knoy:
Wait if the owner messed up, they're kind at the owner for days.

Sy Montgomery:
Yes, they are mad for the owner for messing it up. Yep.

Sy Montgomery:
I've also heard of border collies who weren't even in the border collie trials, but suddenly showed up with a herd of somebody else's sheep that didn't didn't need herding, but suddenly brought the man feeling a little competitive there. Yes, absolutely. And they figure things out all the time. And it's true, they've been bred to have this ability, but we, too, are born with with certain abilities.

Sy Montgomery:
And as far as looking at their brains, I I don't know how much work has been done on that, because, I mean, we can look inside of brains with CAT scans and stuff like that. But that work has just sort of begun. There's there's other breeds of dogs whose skulls are because people wanted to breed them to have a smashed in face, for example. You know, the brain is a different shape and may be mashed in a little bit more. And some of these breeds are and are not usually known for for what we consider intelligence, although frequently they're very sweet and they've been bred to be lap dogs. But yeah, border collies, I think, are all geniuses.

Laura Knoy:
Well, another email. Thank you, Jeannie, for that. Theo writes, Enjoying your program? I'm a former avid fisherman. Even though I practiced catch and release, I have become. I've come to be very uncomfortable with hooking and fighting a fish. It just doesn't feel right to entertain myself at the expense of a fish. I think my friends assume I'm losing my mind in my older age. Glad there are people like you out there speaking for the animals. Yeah, I grew up fishing and we always eat what we caught because this was many years ago, so you could do that.

Sy Montgomery:
And I too am a little. I know catch released just doesn't feel right to me. But while Theo should give his friends the gift of a book called What a Fish Knows by Jonathan Balcombe, and it totally bears out everything that you think about this, Theo.

Laura Knoy:
Well, Sy. I could have talked to you for another three hours, but I did want I quickly, quickly ask you what animals you're working on next. Who are you studying and writing about now?

Sy Montgomery:
Well, the next book to come out is on California Condors, which is a really happy conservation story, but one that's not done yet. And condors are big vultures.

Laura Knoy:
Vultures?

Sy Montgomery:
Yes, I am. In my work, I got to be bitten by a vulture and hooked on by a vulture.

Laura Knoy:
Never a dull day. Never.

Laura Knoy:
Sy. It's great to talk to you. Thank you so much. Thank you for that. Sy Montgomery, again, writer and naturalist, award winning New Hampshire based author. You can find more information about size work at our Web site and HP Peoria Slash Exchange. While you're there, check out some of our coffee and community events that were holding around the state this summer. This is The Exchange on New Hampshire Public Radio.

The views expressed in this program are those of the individuals and not those of NH PR, its board of trustees or its underwriters. If you liked what you heard, spread the word. Give us a review on Apple podcasts to help other listeners find us. Thanks.