If you’re a slob, you’re a pig. If you’re sneaky, you’re a weasel. Cowards are chickens, and followers are sheep or lemmings. If you give bad loans, you’re a shark. If you’re fat, you’re a cow, or maybe a whale. If you’re lazy, you’re a sloth. Crazy folks are batty; people who talk shit are catty. Villains are snakes, women are bitches, and the lowest of low are dogs. The president of the United States of America recently said of undocumented immigrants, “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people—these are animals.”
In the English language, at least, being compared to an animal is rarely a compliment. (Even if you’re called a fox because you’re oh so sexy, there’s also the implication that you’re sly, tricky, and untrustworthy.) In fact, comparing people to animals isn’t just unflattering, but dangerous. According to Genocide Watch, equating members of an ethnic group with animals, vermin, insects, or diseases is the third stage of genocide, as this type of comparison “overcomes the normal human revulsion against murder.” During the Holocaust, Jews were called rats; during the Rwandan genocide, Tutsis were called cockroaches. This made them easier to kill: They weren’t humans. They were animals. They were less.
But if you called Sy Montgomery a dog, she wouldn’t be insulted; she would be flattered. In Montgomery’s new book How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals, the renowned nature writer best known for her book on eight-armed mollusks focuses her observant eye on her own life and the creatures that shaped her. “Though I’ve been blessed with some splendid classroom teachers—Mr. Clarkson, my high school journalism teacher, foremost among them,” Montgomery writes in the introduction, “most of my teachers have been animals.” In her memoir, Montgomery argues the point that not only should being compared to an animal be taken as a compliment, but we should be humbled in the presence of our fellow creatures. We have so much to learn from them.
The first creature Montgomery introduces us to is, naturally, her beloved childhood dog, Molly. A strong-willed and independent Scottish Terrier, Molly seemed to be more of a roommate than a pet, and she enjoyed her days freely roaming the Brooklyn army base where Montgomery grew up. “She wouldn’t come in when we called her in at night,” writes Montgomery of Molly. “Eventually my parents figured out we could blink the front porch lights on and off to signal that we would like her to come home. It was merely a suggestion.” Perhaps because of the independent nature of Scotties, Montgomery never seemed to feel control or power over the dog—Montgomery was not Molly’s master, but her peer. “Many young girls worship their older sisters. I was no expectation,” writes Montgomery. “But my older sister was a dog, and I—standing there helplessly in the frilly dress and lacy socks in which my mother had dressed me—wanted to be just like her: Fierce. Feral. Unstoppable.” Molly, in Montgomery’s eyes, wasn’t just a dog; she was a superhero. “I was entranced by Molly’s otherworldly powers,” writes Montgomery. “She could hear my father’s approaching staff car long before it arrived in the driveway. She could smell an opened can of Ken-L Ration from the moment my mother took it out of the refrigerator. She could see in the dark.” Dogs are so much more than cute fuzz balls to curl up with on the couch or toss a Frisbee to, Montgomery reminds us—they quite literally have superhuman abilities. No wonder Montgomery followed Molly around like, well, a puppy.
The image of a little Montgomery in a muddied dress and Mary Janes chasing after her Scottie dog, in turn chasing after a rogue Brooklyn rabbit, is a charming visual. “Cute,” one might think. “She wants to be just like her dog. What a delightful phase.” But the thing with Montgomery is that this desire to emulate the animals in her life was not a phase. She has spent the past 60 years admiring animals and following them to some of the most obscure locations around the globe to study and write about them.
“I was never, my mother told me, a ‘normal’ child,” writes Montgomery. It’s true: People—children, and especially adults—who obsess over animals are seen as odd. It’s okay to like animals; it’s okay even to love them, but not too much. It’s not “normal.” It is easy to dismiss Montgomery as one of those over-the-top animal people: She is a vegetarian, she lives on a farm in New Hampshire, she has had pet dogs, turtles, ferrets, parakeets, cockatiels, chickens, and even a pig named Christopher Hogwood (who not only gets his own chapter in How to Be a Good Creature but about whom Montgomery already wrote another entire book). She’s the crazy animal person who would hold a tarantula. It’s too much, right?
It’s not. In the same way that we are told that being compared to an animal is an insult, people are taught to believe that it is unhealthy to be too fond of animals. It’s all social conditioning. “People aren’t born with a fear of spiders,” argues Montgomery. “You can quickly teach a young person or animal to fear anything, including a harmless flower,” she writes in her chapter on Clarabelle, a tarantula she came to know and love when doing research in French Guiana. Montgomery herself wasn’t too fond of spiders before going on this South American expedition with a biologist who specializes in studying Goliath birdeater tarantulas. But eventually, she found herself holding a tarantula when “something magical happened. Holding her in my hand, I could literally feel a connection with this creature. No longer did I see her as a really big spider; now I saw her as a small animal.”
It’s all about changing your perspective. Montgomery was able to hold a tarantula after she learned that spiders rarely bite people and that, actually, encased in their exoskeletons, tarantulas are quite delicate. In this same way, Montgomery makes the point throughout her memoir that if you open your eyes to the complex beauty of the natural world, you can see that being called an animal is actually something extremely remarkable. It’s something to be proud of. If you’re called a pig, you’re super smart. If you’re called a weasel, you can hold on tight to the things you want. If you’re a chicken, you’re affectionate and have many friends. Animals have so many admirable qualities that we would be better humans if we worked harder to emulate our non-human friends.
When President Donald Trump tweeted that Steve Bannon had been “dumped like a dog,” Jennifer Weiner wrote an essay for The New York Times called “What the President Doesn’t Get About Dogs.” According to how Trump uses “dog” to insult his enemies, “dogs are failures, dogs are unattractive, dogs are unworthy of faith,” writes Weiner. But anyone who has ever had a dog knows otherwise; if someone calls you a dog, it should be because you are loyal and kind. Trump is one of the only American presidents not to have a pet at the White House, and as Weiner writes, “It takes a lot to elicit sympathy for a man whose life goals seem to be deepening America’s divisions, lining his pockets and starting a third world war on Twitter, not necessarily in that order. But it’s hard not to be a little sad for anyone who won’t ever know the singular pleasure of a dog’s companionship.”
Sy Montgomery’s latest book is all about the pleasure that comes from a life rich with many creatures. How to Be a Good Creature, though, is about more than appreciating animals: It is about learning from them. It is about how to be a good creature. “Knowing someone who belongs to another species can enlarge your soul in surprising ways,” writes Montgomery. There is something about animals that is pure. Animals are observant. Animals are loyal. Animals only attack when threatened. Animals respect the world they live in. Animals would never break up family groups into separate cages or discriminate against people for their religious affiliation or make a thinly veiled rape joke. Animals love homeless people and members of the 1 percent equally. Animals don’t care about your job or your power or your fame or your status. Animals value you for the content of your character. This is why we should follow Montgomery’s advice and be more like animals ourselves.
While How to Be a Good Creature is Sy Montgomery’s memoir, it is actually much more about our current political climate than Fear or Fire and Fury or any of those “fuck Trump” books. What Montgomery seems to be saying, underneath her personal story, is that when our human leaders fail us as role models, we should look to animals. “I can tell you that teachers are all around to help you: with four legs or two or even eight; some with internal skeletons, some without,” writes Montgomery. “All you have to do is recognize them as teachers and be ready to hear their truths.”
When you feel despair at the actions of your fellow humans, turn to other species for guidance.