||During the first two days of February, when cold rain was falling onto ice then freezing again, the scientist, writer, and explorer Sy Montgomery was having an entirely different effect on the BWL student body. An internationally-published, award-winning author of 15 children’s and adult books about animals, Ms. Montgomery spoke about the joys of swimming with dolphins, the awe of seeing her first gorilla, and the perils of being chased by a swimming tiger. For these distinctions, The Boston Globe has called her “Part Indiana Jones and part Emily Dickinson.” By the end of her visit, all three school divisions had received their own, custom-made narrative fueled by this adventurous, inaugural spirit.
Ms. Montgomery studied journalism and French at Syracuse University and promptly went to work for the Courier-News in Bridgewater, NJ, earning a salary and keeping office hours. But then a research opportunity roused her nascent desires to become a veterinarian and, to the surprise of all, she shipped off to Australia – with no salary or health insurance -- to study emus, the second tallest birds in the world. “It was the smartest thing I ever did,” she says. “They can run 40 miles per hour and are strong enough to sever fencing wire with a single kick. We knew these things about the emu, but I was the first one to follow them each day. If you pay close attention,” she said to a background of slides showing something awesome that no student had likely thought of that day, “you can find out stuff no one else has known.”
In 1991, when she was 32, Ms. Montgomery published her first book, Walking with the Great Apes: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas. While researching the book, she walked the same grounds as did the mentors she wrote about: Tanzania, Uganda, and Borneo, and she lived among the same animals they studied. Thus began a life of adventure, research, and writing that would take her, among other places, into a pit of 18,000 snakes in Manitoba; into the mountains of Mongolia to search for snow leopards; into the cloud forests of Papua New Guinea to radiocollar tree Kangaroos; and to French Guyana, home of the quarter-pound Goliath Bird Eater Tarantula.
With the 2010 publication of Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot, Ms. Montgomery became a three-time winner of the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award. The Good Good Pig, a memoir of her animal companion Christopher Hogwood, is an international bestseller. Among her many other accolades: the 2009 New England Independent Booksellers Association Nonfiction Award, the 2010 Children’s Book Guild Award, and a National Geographic documentary based on her book Spell of the Tiger. She engages her conservationist passions on the boards of the Rainforest Conservation Fund, RESTORE! The North Woods, and the Center for Tropical Conservation.
None of this pedigree, however, got between her infective rapport with the students, who asked about the most dangerous situation she had encountered, about her favorite place to visit, and of her biggest challenges. She also tasked her audience with questions that they may not have considered ever before: “Why would a vampire bat have a natural anesthetic in its drool?” (To numb its prey before biting it.) “Why would a bear with an infected tooth chew on willow bark?” (For the salicylic acid, a painkiller.)
Amid her eye-popping slides that captured this world-wide rumpus, she reminded her impressionable audience, “Everything I have ever learned I’ve found has come in handy in the field.” And, beyond simply serving as spectacles in out of the way locales, Ms. Montgomery reminded students that animals are, foremost, our teachers. “They are living by senses we have lost or never attained, with powers of scent, sight and hearing we can barely imagine. They widen our world.”
“We are on the cusp of either destroying this sweet, green Earth—or revolutionizing the way we understand the rest of animate creation,” she said. “It’s an important time to be writing about the connections we share with our fellow creatures. It’s a great time to be alive.” If the many raised hands, books she signed, or sighs of awe were any gauge, Ms. Montgomery instilled these vibrant connections through all three BWL divisions.