My guest today is bestselling author and naturalist Sy Montgomery. The Boston Globe describes her as “part Indiana Jones and part Emily Dickinson.” Her best-known book is the Soul of an Octopus, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2015. But she’s written about everything from tarantulas to hyenas to hummingbirds to pink dolphins. And as far as I can tell, she’s fallen in love with every one of them.
MONTGOMERY: They look absolutely otherworldly. They’ve got these enormous legs and these big feet that look like Tyrannosaurus rex. And I thought, “Oh my gosh, I want to know everything I could possibly learn about them.”
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.
Reading her books, I’ve always felt like there was something very special, almost magical about her, and I suspect it’s because she’s devoted her life to animals but outside the traditional academic path, which requires and rewards specialization that manages to take all the joy out of things. And, as a consequence, she’s been able to retain a childlike excitement in her writing. I’m curious to see if she agrees with me on that, or maybe whether she regrets not following an academic path.
LEVITT: So, you’ve written that most of your teachers have been animals
MONTGOMERY: It’s true.
LEVITT: Now, it’s interesting because there are people who spend a lot of time with animals or studying animals who maybe don’t recognize them as teachers.
MONTGOMERY: Well, a lot of people who study animals — they might actually — in their secret heart of hearts — admit that the animals have taught them a great deal. Because when you get to know what’s been called “the more than human world,” you realize that — and I’m quoting Henry Beston here — that they are gifted with voices we can’t hear, and gifted with senses that we don’t possess, and that they are experiencing the world in this amazingly full and rich way that we can barely touch. For example, sharks can detect the electrical current of their prey’s heart. Dogs can smell things that go right past us, and octopuses can taste with their skin. All of that out there is the real world, but it’s the real world that we’re not experiencing. But we enlarge our appreciation for the world when we get to know animals.
LEVITT: When you wrote that animals were your teachers, it led me to ponder whether it was also true for me. and I started to think about growing up. And I had a nice childhood, a good family, but one thing that was completely absent was any overt expression of love. To this day, I’ve literally never heard my parents or siblings say, “I love you.” And I was the youngest and I internalized that. But when I was about 12, we got a dog, a yellow lab named Princess, and somehow Princess became an outlet for love expression. So, my parents would hug her and play with her and lavish loving praise on her. And I would as well. And it didn’t change at all the way the humans in my family related to one another, but I saw loving expression and I got to practice it. And in my adult life, I’m a little bit ashamed to say that on most dimensions, I have repeated all of the same mistakes that my parents made in their relationships. But one notable exception is that I have, with my own children, found it so easy and natural to express my love both in words, and with physical touch. And when I started thinking about what you said, I really believe now that it’s because of that dog Princess, that she taught me how to express it.
MONTGOMERY: Oh, wow. That’s a huge thing — to be able to teach someone how to express love. Animals show you how to give and receive unconditional love. And animals teach us so much else, too. I mean, they taught me patience because I will wait silently for hours to see an animal reveal some wonderful behavior to me. Animals have taught me forgiveness. Actually, it was a pig who taught me how to be with people. If we get out into the outside world, if we get out with our dogs, with our gerbils, with our parakeets, with some robins at the feeder, or even with worms crawling around in the dirt? There’s so much else that we can learn that enriches us.
LEVITT: Now I suspect that many listeners can relate to the idea of loving a dog, but they would be much more surprised to hear that one of the greatest loves of your life was a pig. Can you tell us about Christopher Hogwood?
MONTGOMERY: When my father was dying and I was in my early thirties, I was taking care of my dad in Virginia. And my husband got a phone call from these wonderful farmers who we knew in a nearby town. And we used to go visit them and play with the baby pigs every year when they were born. Well, one pig was a runt among runts. He had every disease in the barn. He was so sickly and so skinny, and they thought they were just going to have to euthanize him. He was never, ever going to live, but then they got the idea, “Maybe if we gave him to Sy?” Well, the phone call came in while I was away. And my poor husband, who’s constantly trying to fend off my efforts to adopt every single animal, he says, “Normally I would not even tell her that you called. But her father is dying and maybe this will help her feel better.” And as much as I loved my father, my love was not enough to save him from cancer. But my love was enough to save this runt baby pig, who grew to 750 pounds and lived for 14 years — giving 14 years of comfort and joy, not just to me — but he delighted everyone who met him. Christopher Hogwood, being a pig and pigs are geniuses, knew how to unlock his own pen and he would get out and he would just go visiting people. And frequently, we wouldn’t realize that our 750-pound pig was out rampaging in the neighborhood. But the great thing was, even when he dug up somebody’s tomatoes, by the time I got to pick him up, he’d already made friends with them. No one can resist a jolly, happy pig. And as a child growing up — I grew up on military bases. And my father was a general, and so, nobody wanted their kids to play with the General’s daughter, because what if the kid clonged me over the head with his little truck or something? They’d be afraid that Dad would be peeling potatoes doing K.P. for the rest of his career. So, I didn’t have a lot of friends who were children. Christopher Hogwood is the one who brought me child friends as I was an adult. And I discovered they are so much fun. (SL^laughs) And so the little girls next door instigated the tradition of pig spa, they decided one day that Christopher Hogwood’s tail needed to be brushed. It had this appealing ringlet. But after the long winter, it had grown dirty and matted. And so, they had to comb that out and then they had to wash it. And then we started giving him these warm, soapy baths, and we were rubbing his hooves with the special stuff to make them shine. And soon all the kids in the neighborhood were coming and Christopher charmed them all.
LEVITT: Do you think pigs in general are lovable or that Christopher Hogwood was just an outlier pig — a really special kind of pig?
MONTGOMERY: Well, everyone is an individual, of course, but all pigs are very smart. They’re very much like us, to a shocking degree. Not only are they physically like us in that they get many of our diseases — their skins will graft onto our own to the point that pig skin is used to help burn victims — but beyond that, we know pigs actually develop superstitions, like people do. And I learned this from Temple Grandin, who’s a friend of mine. She told me that in some feedlots — so that the biggest pigs don’t get all of the food, they fit pigs with these electronic collars — so that when they approach their food, a little door opens, which is triggered by the collar.
MONTGOMERY: And the pigs are curious about how did this happen? And some of them started doing these movements that they had done the last time they saw the door open, revealing the food. They would walk up towards it and stamp their trotter twice and wiggle their ears and whatever it was, that they believed would open that door, although it was in fact being done electronically by their collar.
LEVITT: Pigs, like humans, need a lesson in correlation versus causality and which way the causal arrow goes.
LEVITT: So, when Christopher died, you were devastated. You write that you were so depressed that you basically made a suicide pact with yourself. Can you talk about that?
MONTGOMERY: Oh, it was horrible. Chris died and then our 16-year-old border collie Tess died. And I knew I was depressed, and I know that there’s things you’re supposed to do when you’re depressed to bring yourself out of it: be outside in the sunshine and talk to your friends and do exercise, and I tried to learn a new language so my brain wouldn’t turn to mush. I was very aware that there was something wrong with me and it needed fixing, but it was almost as if the cells in my body didn’t want to live. My mouth bled; my hair started falling out. Before the death of Christopher and Tess, I had committed to do two books. One was Quest for the Tree Kangaroo, and the other was my memoir, The Good Pig, that I wrote to honor Christopher Hogwood. I knew I had to write those two books, but the only way I could get through day after day of feeling this miserable was to promise myself that after I finished those books, if I still felt like this, I would end my life, because I didn’t want to live like that.
LEVITT: And what brought you back into love with life?
MONTGOMERY: Well, one of the books that I’d promised I was going to do — and if I say I’m going to do something, I do it — was a book about my friend, Dr. Lisa Dabek, who studies tree kangaroos in Papua New Guinea. And tree kangaroos are real. They’re not like the pink elephants that come out after a few martinis. There are kangaroos who live in trees. And she studies the Matschie’s tree kangaroos, who is orange and yellow and eats orchids. It’s an amazing thing. And these guys — they live in the highlands of one of the least discovered areas on earth, except by the native people. But the native people, actually, who live in Papua New Guinea seldom go to the cloud forests where these tree kangaroos live. And so, to do this book, I went to the cloud forest of Papua New Guinea. It was so beautiful and otherworldly, it felt like you were in heaven. Everywhere you looked there’s these trees festooned with moss. And everything is soft and springy. And animals that look like something Dr. Seuss made up when he was on an acid trip are living everywhere. And I fell back in love with life that always has these surprises waiting for you. And even if my precious but little life had pain in it, the larger life — the life with a capital “L” — I wanted to be in that life. And in this way, the tree kangaroos saved my life.
LEVITT: Clearly, you love animals. And much to your credit, you’ve managed to construct a life in which your greatest passion and your job are seamlessly interwoven. You get paid to write books essentially about how much you love animals of all kinds.
MONTGOMERY: Can you believe it?
LEVITT: But there’s no college major in popular animal non-fiction. Did you work real jobs on the way to doing what you do now?
MONTGOMERY: I worked for five years at a newspaper in New Jersey, The Courier News, which I loved, it taught me to write on deadline and it taught me reporting. I went to school for journalism and a couple of other things, so it wasn’t like, oh, I had to work at this crummy job before I could finally do what I wanted. But my big break was my father had given me the gift of a trip to Australia that I’d always wanted to visit because the animals there are so different. They have all these wonderful marsupials and duck-billed platypus who are monotremes, and spiny echidna, and parrots all over the place. So, my dad gave me this ticket and I thought, “Wow, now I’m going to Australia. What am I going to do there?” I found out about this organization that’s called Earthwatch and it pairs paying laymen with scientific projects around the world so that I not only would be vacationing, but I would be learning about some of these Australian animals, and on top of that, I’d be helping them. There was a project called Drought Refugia with Dr. Pamela Parker in which we were studying the lives and habits of the southern hairy-nosed wombat. Now, who could resist that? And so at the end of the two week vacation, Dr. Parker saw that I was just crazy about doing this. And I worked really hard. And I was just on fire to do more. And she said, “God, I wish I could hire you to work for me, but I don’t have that in my budget, but if you ever wanted to study something here at Brookfield Conservation Park in South Australia, you could stay at my camp, and I would give you food.” So, I went back to the newsroom at The Courier News and told my editors I was quitting and was going to move to a tent in the Outback.
LEVITT: It doesn’t sound like that was a hard choice for you.
MONTGOMERY: No, but lots of people thought I was insane, but it was one of the smartest things I’ve ever did. Oh, I loved it so much. I didn’t even know when I arrived, what I would study. But one day I was out helping another researcher just with her study. I was gathering plants for her and stuffing them into bags. And all of a sudden, I felt eyes on me, and I looked up and three birds as tall as I was were strolling right by, soundlessly. And they were emus. And emus are like ostriches. They’re Struthioniformes flightless birds. They look absolutely otherworldly. They’ve got these enormous legs and these big feet that look like Tyrannosaurus rex. And they have these tiny little eight-inch wing stumps, and their feathers are double-shafted, and they hang down on their bodies like fur, almost. And these creatures are strolling past me, and I was completely mesmerized. And I thought, “Oh my gosh, I want to know everything I could possibly learn about them.” And I never even dreamed that I would see them again. I thought, “I’m going to just look for their poop and see what seeds are in there.” But no, I found the actual birds day after day, and I managed to get closer and closer to them. I wore the same thing every day. And they recognized me. They have excellent color vision as do all birds and many reptiles. And they, “Oh, there’s that girl with the red kerchief.” And eventually they let me walk almost as close to them as I could walk with you. And to my amazement, no one had ever done even a pilot study to see what these — common in Australia — birds do all day.
LEVITT: You really became the Jane Goodall of emus. Is that right?
MONTGOMERY: Well, unlike Jane, I didn’t discover that they were making tools or waging war or committing infanticide, or any of that stuff. I did discover something that local people have known for years, and that is that emus have a sense of humor. One day I saw them teasing the ranger’s dog. They’re strolling around and the ranger’s dog is out on a chain. And emus know that dogs would like to chase them, but they also know about chains. And so, what they did was they walked up to the dog knowing how long the chain was. And just out of reach of the dog, they leapt up in the air and they splashed the air with their feet, and they threw their necks up in the sky and thrashed around. The dog’s going crazy and he’s running out to the end of the chain and bam. They thought this was hilarious. And then, when they’d done this long enough, they strolled off to the side, and they sat down, and they just preened — the same way that you would file your fingernails or something after you just made a fool of your enemy.
LEVITT: Now, I’m no expert on ethology, which is the study of animal behavior, but I suspect that the scholars in that area might be upset by your books. So, you talked about the emus and how they were teasing the dog and preening, and about the pig and how he enjoyed your company. And I’m sure they would consider it a no-no to anthropomorphize animals, but that’s not even exactly what you do. You speculate about the unique ways each creature might experience the world. Am I right that some scientists complain that you go too far in that direction?
MONTGOMERY: It’s not so much the scientists, but sometimes it’s the philosophers because they want humans to be the top of everything. Now, it is true that in science they use different words than I would use. Of course, in their scientific journals, they have different readers than I’m going to have, but things have changed a bit since, for instance, Jane Goodall first published her findings about tool use in chimps. No one wanted to publish that groundbreaking paper because she named her chimps instead of numbering them.
LEVITT: Woah. Uh-huh.
MONTGOMERY: Now things have changed and now people understand that job one is to identify each individual that you’re studying, because it really matters in animal communities, who’s who. There actually is a field of study that’s looking into animal personalities. I went on a personality survey with some of the top octopus researchers in the world in Moorea in French Polynesia, looking at octopus personalities. And we were trying to figure out: is this octopus bold or shy? The person who headed that study Dr. Jennifer Mather of Lethbridge, a University in Canada — she was the one who pointed out to me that if we fail to talk about emotions in animals, we are overlooking a central fact of neurobiology. And that is that every animal that has ever been studied, when you try to look for the hormones or neurotransmitters responsible for all of our feelings, like joy and fear, like stress and love, we find the exact same neurotransmitters. Even in taxa as different from ourselves, as octopuses, from whom we have been separated for half a billion years of evolution. Oxytocin, you’ve heard of, is the cuddle hormone.
MONTGOMERY: And it’s a hormone that causes us to affiliate with others. It’s not just present when we make love and give birth and nurse. It’s present when you’re with your friends. They went looking for the same molecule in octopus, and they found a chemical so like our oxytocin that they called it cephalotocin. It essentially does the same thing. So, that’s how alike we are. And we cannot even begin to understand the behavior of our fellow creatures if we deny that they have feelings, that they think and they know stuff. And now it’s emerging as a whole new, exciting field of study.
LEVITT: The scientific, conventional wisdom for decades, hundreds of years, insisted that humans were unique on so many dimensions, like consciousness, the use of tools, ability to problem solve. Do you have a take on how these past scientists just got things completely wrong?
MONTGOMERY: Yeah. I think it’s human supremacy, just like white supremacy. We wanted to be at the top, which would justify our exploitation of everybody else, but every child who’s ever had a pet fish knows that animals think and feel and know.
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with writer Sy Montgomery. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about octopuses and Sy’s most recent book about hawks.
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LEVEY: Hey Levitt.
LEVITT: Hey, Morgan.
LEVEY: So, now is the time when we answer a listener question. Our listener named Mike is an astrobiologist. He says that astrobiologists often distill life down to the universal laws that govern it like thermodynamics, and then use those laws to predict how life might operate elsewhere. His question for us is: Are there general laws or principles of economics that you think could be universal to intelligent life? And if so, could we use these universal laws of economics to make predictions about extraterrestrial societies on other worlds?
LEVITT: O.K. So, let me just start by saying I definitely do not believe there are astro-economists, although perhaps by answering this question, I will become the first official astro-economist. So, are there universal laws of economics that would hold in any civilization? There’s one key thing you got to think about first, which is that economics is the study of scarcity. The only reason economics matters is because you don’t have enough money or enough time to get all the things you want. Now, you could imagine a super sophisticated, advanced civilization having solved scarcity, right? So, if you had an infinite source of energy, then a lot of problems would go away. So, anything I’m going to say now only applies to a civilization that’s still bound by the notion of scarcity. And to me, economics only has a couple really universal factors that I think would have to exist in any civilization. The first is that money would emerge. We take money for granted. But money is so efficient because absent money, anytime you want to make a transaction, you need to barter. So, barter requires that the thing that I want is the thing that you have. And the thing that you want is the thing that I have, it’s got to be this bilateral coincidence of wants and haves. And that’s just incredibly inefficient. What money does is allows everyone to trade with everyone. The second prediction I have is that there will be specialization — that any civilization that exists would have people that will concentrate on doing the things they’re good at. It’s an idea that economists call comparative advantage. If I’m better at solving economic models and Morgan is better at producing podcasts, then Morgan’s going to specialize in producing podcasts, and I’m going to specialize in doing economics. O.K., and then there’ll be gains to trade. So, she and I can work together to make us both better off. That is such a fundamental idea. It’s right out of Adam Smith, and I believe that you could not have a civilization that did not have this kind of specialization.
LEVEY: Do you think there’s other fields of study that have general laws or principles that would apply to intelligent life on another planet?
LEVITT: I don’t know. I suspect that almost every discipline would claim that they have universal laws, but then again, I wonder if you asked people who study say art history, whether they believe that the kind of art that will be done in a different universe would have any parallels to the kind of art done here. But I don’t know what you think, Morgan?
LEVEY: Well as an art-history undergraduate major, and someone who worked in a museum for a long time, I would say that an art historian would probably just say intelligent life is probably going to produce art. I think just the act of creation that celebrates society would be an act of intelligent life.
LEVITT: But you don’t think they’d be able to say whether they would use marble or acrylics or watercolors to do their art?
LEVEY: Well, no, we’re talking about extraterrestrial society, so maybe they’re making mind art, for all we know.
LEVITT: I agree.
LEVEY: Mike, thanks so much for your question. If you have a question for us, we can be reached at email@example.com. That’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. It’s an acronym for a show. Steve and I read every email that’s sent, and we look forward to reading yours.
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Some people write very differently than they speak, not Sy. Talking to her is just like reading her books. Remarkably so. I suspect that’s a sign of authenticity. In the second part of our conversation, I want to make sure we talk about octopuses and her new book about hawks, but I also want to hear what she has to say about bigger picture issues like ethics towards animals and ways we could better integrate animals into modern life.
LEVITT: So, you’ve written about an astonishing array of animals: tigers, pink dolphins, tarantulas, and hummingbirds, just to name a few. But of all your books, the one about octopuses, called The Soul of an Octopus, seems to be the one that really captured people’s imaginations. Why do you think that is?
MONTGOMERY: Boy. I think it’s the power of the octopus. It’s because maybe an octopus is as close as you’ll come to ever seeing an alien who lives on this earth, because they’re just so unlike us.
LEVITT: Can you describe some of the ways in which octopuses are different than we are?
MONTGOMERY: They don’t have any bones, for one thing. We go head, body, limbs. And they go body, head, limbs. Their head is where their stomach is supposed to be. A lot of people think that big round thing on the top of the octopus —when its legs are on the bottom — that’s their head. That’s not their head at all. That’s where their guts are and the reproductive organs and all that kind of stuff. They can taste with all of their skin. They can change color and shape. They can pour their bodies through a tiny opening. They shoot ink. They have venom. They are super smart, though. And the ways in which they are like us is just as startling. They like to play with the same toys our children do. If you give an octopus Mr. Potato Head, he’s going to amuse himself by taking apart Mr. Potato Head and putting back together Mr. Potato Head. They love to play with puzzles. An octopus who is trying to figure something out, often you’ll see them changing color, the same way we would scratch our head.
LEVITT: Could you tell me more about their brains?
MONTGOMERY: Oh, my God.
LEVITT: I think you write that they have something like 50 or 70 lobes of the brain?
MONTGOMERY: One reason that scientists have in the past given, for saying, “Oh, this animal isn’t as smart as a human because its brain is small.” They would look in the brains, for example, of birds and say, “Oh, the frontal lobes of the bird just don’t look like ours. They must be really stupid.” Well, their brains wrap around their throat in a ring. And they totally don’t look like ours. We have four lobes. And like you said, depending on how you count the lobes and which species of octopus, they have between 50 and 75 lobes. But most of their neurons are actually in their arms. So, it’s almost as if they have nine brains. If you sever an octopus’ arm — if you’re a Moray eel and you bite it off — that arm can go off and do stuff. Now, it can’t live for very long because it depends on, the heart and the gills, but that severed arm can actually hunt and capture something.
MONTGOMERY: And some scientists believe that octopuses have some shy arms and some bold arms.
LEVITT: Another thing you write about is the loving dedication that the octopus mom has to her eggs. Specifically, you talk about Octavia, a giant octopus friend of yours at the New England Aquarium. Can you tell us her story?
MONTGOMERY: Yeah. Octopuses only lay eggs once in their lives at the end of their lives, and they lay like a hundred thousand. The giant Pacific octopus lays like a hundred thousand eggs. And they hang like strings of pearls from the ceiling and sides of her lair. And she cements these strings of eggs to the substrate with a secretion in her head. And then for the rest of her life, she does nothing but guard and clean these eggs. In the wild, she will not eat anything. This will persist for six months. My friend Octavia laid eggs after we’d known each other for, gosh, I guess a couple of years. She was not living in the wild. There was no Mr. Octopus — that’s why her eggs weren’t viable — but she still cared so much about her eggs that she would not leave them. And we would take a grabber and hand her food on the end of the grabber. She had loved playing with us before, but she wouldn’t come up to play. She would accept the food, but she would not touch us. She was absolutely devoted to those eggs. So, in the wild, a mother octopus, her eggs would hatch. She would use some of her last breaths to blow those baby octopuses out of her lair and into the open ocean where they would become part of the plankton until they got big enough to settle, then she would die. But Octavia was so extraordinary. Six months came and went. Her babies didn’t hatch, and she didn’t die. Seven months, eight months, nine months — her eggs were not hatching, but she would not leave them. And she continued to clean them and she continued to guard them. Until the very end of her life — she developed an infection. She was just falling apart because she was so old. And Bill Murphy, her wonderful keeper, felt that she should not have to be on display like that. And so, he sent Darshawn, his assistant, to try to pick her up and urge her into a bucket so that she could take up residence behind the scenes and people wouldn’t be looking at her all the time. And, boy, even though she was old and dying and sick, she was not going to leave those eggs. Darshawn could not get her to move. And to give you an idea of the strength of these animals, a big sucker on a big male, maybe three and a half inches across, can lift 30 pounds. So, think of the strength of this animal. So, Darshawn wasn’t going to get anywhere with her, but then Bill — who had taken care of her every day of her life — even though they had been essentially apart while she was in her lair for almost 10 months, I think at that point, he put his hand in, his ungloved hand, and they can taste with all of their skin. She tasted her friend and recognized him, and then she let go, and Bill was able to put her in the bucket. And I came in a couple of days later, because I knew she was on her last legs, and I wanted to say goodbye. We had not played with each other for nine or 10 months. And octopuses only live three to five years. So, we had not seen each other for the equivalent of several decades in terms of chunks of her life. And I didn’t know that she would remember me. And I was absolutely astonished that when I took the lid off her tank and she looked up and she saw my face, even though she was old and she was sick and she was dying, she came up to the top of that tank to look into my face and stretched out her arms to greet me and hold onto and taste my skin. And I handed her a fish, and she threw it away. She did not come up to eat something. She came up to be with me. And I don’t know if she knew she was dying — I know she knew she didn’t feel well — and she still made that effort. And that shows me that even though I may not know what love feels like to an octopus that she cared about me. And what I think is the kind of revelation of the Soul of an Octopus is that an octopus does have a soul, if we do. That someone that different from you — not only can you care about them, but they care about you. And that is a fabulous message for us to hear. Particularly right now, when we’re so polarized, that someone that different from you can touch your life in this profound and meaningful way.
LEVITT: So, your latest book, which is due out in May is about hawks. And I have a deep admiration for birds of prey, but I feel like it would be hard for even you to feel an emotional bond with a hawk. I get the impression they are essentially killing machines without much personality. Is that right?
MONTGOMERY: Well, God, that is a feeling you can get from watching a hawk. Hawks’ greatest heart’s delight is to chase a prey item and kill it. Not just because they want to eat it, but they love doing it. They excel at it. And I wanted to know someone like that. Hawks don’t want you to touch them. A hawk is not going to cheer you up when you feel sad, the way a dog is or a cat. A hawk is not going to come to your rescue if you’re in trouble. But I found knowing someone so courageous, so single-minded, so talented, so beautiful, so gracious — I could love them without needing them to love me back.
LEVITT: So, when you’re with these hawks, they’re — obviously — eating prey. Do you side with the hawks against the prey or are you secretly hoping the prey are going to get away?
MONTGOMERY: Oh, man, this is so hard. But if we think back to the last National Geographic special you watched — if you’re watching the one about the wildebeest, you want the wildebeest to get away.
LEVITT: Exactly, yeah.
MONTGOMERY: But if you’re watching the one about the lion, you know, the mom’s got to feed her cubs you’re like, “Get that wildebeest!”
LEVITT: So true.
MONTGOMERY: So, this was what kind of happened to me. I could feel how much the hawks I worked with wanted to capture prey. Falconers called this yarak. It’s this wild ferocity. Ferocity isn’t necessarily evil or bad. We talk about fierce mothers, for example — fierce love. And when I went hunting with a hawk, I was blinded to everything but that hawk’s desire. And being able to touch a piece of that flaming incandescent desire — that wildness — was an amazing transformative blessing for me.
LEVITT: I was in Costa Rica on a nature tour a few years back. You’d see things that were harsh; injured animals dying, predator and prey, et cetera. And the nature guide, the local, who was leading us around, she always said the same thing. She’d say, “Is nature. Is O.K.” That was her response to anything bad that we saw. “Is nature. Is O.K.” I think, in some sense, that’s the feeling you’re tapping into as well.
MONTGOMERY: And the same thing happens when you travel anywhere, even in human cultures. You see somebody, you know, “Oh my gosh, they’re wearing clothes made out of bark. That looks terribly uncomfortable.” Should we take that away from them? No. This is the way that they’re living. If we’re too busy passing judgment on them and applying our standards to them, then we are going to miss the whole point of that travel.
LEVITT: Here’s something I strongly suspect will happen. When people look back in a hundred or 200 years, they will be shocked and dismayed at the cruelty that our society subjects animals to with factory farming. Do you agree?
MONTGOMERY: A hundred percent. We will be appalled. And that’s why I became vegetarian years ago. Now there are farms that raise animals and slaughter animals in a more humane way, but I’m still delighted that I’m not eating them.
LEVITT: You made a really powerful case for the wonder of pigs. Do you think for people whose goal it is get away from factory farming that maybe the strategy they should be taking is trying to teach people about the wonderful personality that pigs have?
MONTGOMERY: Oh, I have gotten so many letters from people telling me that my book was the end of their bacon. And also, after Soul of an Octopus, many people wrote and said, “You know what? I used to love to eat octopus. I don’t eat it anymore.” I love food and I love making food, but the taste of that item is on your tongue for less than a minute before you swallow something else. And for someone to lose their life for a taste on your tongue, that just seems like an enormous waste when there’s so many other delicious and nourishing things that we could have and not take away somebody’s life, somebody who thinks and feels and knows.
LEVITT: It’s interesting to think about a world where humans stopped eating animals. So, the population of pigs and turkeys would essentially go to zero. I wonder if there was a united federation of pigs — like a worker’s union representing pigs — whether they would be in favor of pigs more or less disappearing, or whether they would lobby for the status quo, as awful as it is. Have you ever thought about it that way?
MONTGOMERY: Yeah, I do, because I think about humans disappearing. And I’m 64 — I think about my own death. And I think pigs would not so much care that their kind persist in large numbers. Our numbers right now for humans is ridiculously large. I don’t want to kill off a whole bunch of us, but our planet was not really built to hold 8 billion people. And rather than kill us off, it would be nice if we had fewer children who had greater resources and better access to health care. I don’t think that we’re all rooting for the individual numbers of our species to be larger and larger. I don’t think that is how you win the game. You know what I mean?
LEVITT: I mean, it’s interesting though, because some philosophers believe that the maximization of welfare is adding up across how many people there are. And so more people, all else equal is really good.
MONTGOMERY: Wait, I think that’s crazy.
LEVITT: I do too, but —
MONTGOMERY: Jeez. Have they ever been in traffic in Manhattan? Where do these people live?
LEVITT: They live in the ivory tower, so they have lots of space, and access to good food and good healthcare. O.K., so if you were in charge of society, how would you change the role of animals? Do you think there are things we could do that would be better for humans and better for animals?
MONTGOMERY: Oh yes, absolutely. We need more compassion for each other. And for all the sentient beings on the earth.
LEVITT: And how would you do that, though? Maybe policy is too simple a word, but do you see ways to bring animals into our existence such that reverence and compassion would be emergent?
MONTGOMERY: Well, that’s what I’m doing or trying to do with every book I write.
And there’s so many other ways that others can use their time and treasure and talent, but my way, the thing that I’m good at is just writing books. That’s what I can do.
LEVITT: Now, many people in your shoes would have said, “Oh, I’ll go get a Ph.D. in zoology or ethology.” But the nature of higher education is towards intense specialization. Essentially, you would become an expert in emus that live in one territory of Australia. And your career would revolve around arguing with other emu experts about very narrow aspects of emu behavior. So, here’s my hypothesis: It’s precisely by sidestepping an academic approach to animals that you’ve been able to retain such a childlike joy in your writing.
MONTGOMERY: I think it’s an excellent hypothesis. One of my heroines growing up was Dian Fossey, who studied the mountain gorillas in Zaire and then Rwanda. She was a scientist, but she came to know and literally fall in love with the gorillas that she studied. She realized if we just study them, we will study them to death. She needed to be a conservationist and save them. I’m not criticizing ethologists for the critical insights that they’re gathering from being with animals, but I felt that my job could be the middleman and that I could bring some of their findings and some of the delight that I felt just being with these creatures to the public. And then mobilize public sentiment to save these animals in their habitats because we save what we love.
MONTGOMERY: And so. I felt I could be more effective, I could serve them better doing what I do than had I become an ethologist. And boy, it has been such a blast. I pretty much live in this irritating state of constant elation.
I’ve been around a handful of spiritual people who are described as being enlightened. These are people who’ve dedicated their lives to meditation and introspection, losing their sense of self and feeling at one with the universe. These folks exude a sense of peace and joy. Somehow, it feels like Sy has found her way to the exact same place following a very different path. Animals have indeed been very good teachers for her. If you’re interested in animals and in economics, you might want to check out Freakonomics Radio episode number 329, it’s called “The Invisible Paw,” and it’s about the way some animals engage in what we’d recognize as economic activity. Thanks for listening, and I’ll see you next week.
People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and Freakonomics, M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Morgan Levey is our producer and Jasmin Klinger is our engineer. We had help on this episode from Alina Kulman. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Gabriel Roth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Zack Lapinski, Julie Kanfer, Eleanor Osborne, Mary Diduch, Ryan Kelley, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme music was composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, that’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. Thanks for listening.
MONTGOMERY: When I was less than two years old, my parents took me to the zoo and they let go of my hands for a minute. And the next thing they knew I was in the hippo pen.
- Sy Montgomery, naturalist and author.
- The Hawk’s Way: Encounters with Fierce Beauty, by Sy Montgomery (2022).
- “An Octopus Could Be the Next Model Organism,” by Rachel Nuwer (Scientific American, 2021).
- “What is in an Octopus’s Mind?” by Jennifer Mather (Animal Sentience, 2019).
- “Jane Goodall, How a Woman Redefined Mankind,” by Karen Karbo (National Geographic, 2019).
- How To Be A Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals, by Sy Montgomery (2018).
- Tamed and Untamed: Close Encounters of the Animal Kind, by Sy Montgomery and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas (2017).
- The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, by Sy Montgomery and (2015).
- The Good Good Pig: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood, by Sy Montgomery (2006).
- The Quest for the Tree Kangaroo: An Expedition to the Cloud Forest of New Guinea, by Sy Montgomery (2006).
- Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson (2005).
- “Tool-Using and Aimed Throwing in a Community of Free-Living Chimpanzees,” by Jane Goodall (Nature, 1964).
- “Dian Fossey Biography,” (Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International).
- “Wombats, Wild Dogs, and the Worldly Career of Sy Montgomery,” by Sy Montgomery (Earthwatch).