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Local authors speak on animal intelligence at Monadnock Lyceum

  • Elizabeth Marshall Thomas of Peterborough and Sy Montgomery of Hancock, co-authors of "Tamed & Untamed: Close Encounters of the Animal Kind" speak at the Monadnock Lyceum in Peterborough on Sunday. Staff photo by Ashley Saari—Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

  • Elizabeth Marshall Thomas of Peterborough and Sy Montgomery of Hancock, co-authors of "Tamed & Untamed: Close Encounters of the Animal Kind" speak at the Monadnock Lyceum in Peterborough on Sunday. Staff photo by Ashley Saari



Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Tuesday, July 10, 2018 11:18AM

It’s easy to look into the eyes of your cat or dog and believe that they have emotions. But what about an octopus? Or a fruit fly?

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas of Peterborough and Sy Montgomery of Hancock, have each individually written several books on the lives of different animal species, from domesticated dogs and pigs, to the animals that roam the African Saharas or under the vast oceans. Last year, the two co-authored a book about some of their animal experiences in “Tamed and Untamed: Close Encounters of the Animal Kind.”

The two women shared the microphone in the second talk at the Monanock Summer Lyceum series at the Peterborough Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, telling some of the stories from their collective decades of experience working with animals. 

They connected, Montgomery recalled, when during their first meeting, when Montgomery was interviewing Thomas about her work with elephants. Montgomery was fascinated by Thomas’ pet dingo, and Thomas was equally fascinated by Montgomery’s large brood of pet ferrets. When her fascination wasn’t dulled by one of the ferrets biting her, Montgomery said she knew she had found a like mind.

“We were soulmates, we knew that. We saw that,” said Montgomery.

The two women also shared a belief that, while today is commonly accepted, was still in question when they began their lives studying animals.

“We shared this worldview – and in the early ‘80s, our worldview was heretical – which was that animals can think and feel and know, that animals had both consciousness and culture,” explained Montgomery.

In her most recent book, “The Soul of an Octopus” Montgomery studies octopuses in both captivity and the wild, and easily described some of the animals as she worked with as “friends.” 

Octopuses show curiosity, excitement, even disgust, said Montgomery. When one “tasted” Thomas with its tentacles, it recoiled, likely from tasting the nicotine in her system.

Thomas recalled stories from her early years, living in the Kalahari Desert among the bushpeople as a teenager, where she saw the lion population and the people living together harmoniously. They were forced to share proximity due to needing to live near the scarce watering holes, explained Thomas.

“The lions didn’t hunt the people. The people did not hunt the lions,” she said. “The lions used the land by night and the people by day.”

One example of this, Thomas recalled, was when she and her brother were with a group of hunters tracking an antelope that had been shot by a poison dart, and when they came across it, a pride of lions had also found it. The hunters merely spoke firmly to the lions, telling them to leave, and tossed a pebble at them, and the lions went on their way.

“I thought that was how you dealt with lions,” said Thomas, who admitted the strategy didn’t serve her well later in life, when she was charged by a lion in a different part of Africa after trying the same tactic. But she believes that difference is down to the fact that in that area, lions and people hadn’t co-existed for several generations. 

“It was a cultural difference,” said Thomas.

Next week’s Lyceum will be “Climate Changes in New England: From Science to Solutions” by Cameron Wake, a research professor at the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space at the University of New Hampshire and the Josephine A. Lamprey Professor in Climate and Sustainability at the UNH Sustainability Institute. Lyceum talks begin at 11 a.m. on Sundays at the Peterborough Unitarian Universalist Church, followed by a speaker meet-and-greet.

Recordings of previous Lyceums and information about upcoming talks can be found at monadnocklyceum.org, and will be broadcast on New Hampshire Public Radio. 

 

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 244 or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter @AshleySaariMLT.