In honor of World Octopus Day on Oct. 8, we spoke to our resident expert of all things cephalopodic, Sy Montgomery. Sy’s incredibly thoughtful book, The Soul of an Octopus, (long-listed for a National Book Award) will forever alter the way you look at our invertebrate, intelligent, mystical friends of the sea.
You mention humanity’s impression of octopuses throughout time, from giant monsters who sink ships to a cold, calculating beast in sci-fi tales. What do you think is the most misunderstood aspect of the octopus?
Increasingly, people are beginning to realize octopuses are smart: This spring, New Zealand’s Sea Life aquarium made headlines for training their female octopus, Rambo, to take visitors’ photographs. Octopuses have been long famous for escaping from their tanks (often to enter adjacent tanks to eat the occupants!). But few people realize that, as well as being smart, octopuses can also be remarkably playful and affectionate.
Some of your encounters with octopuses seem like love stories. How did you know you had a bond with some of them?
As we know from our relationships with our friends, lovers, and children, it’s impossible to fully know what’s in another’s heart (or hearts, since an octopus has 3)! But we do know several things for sure about octopuses, and one is that they recognize individuals—and behave differently toward those individuals depending their on past experience with them. This was clearly shown in experiments conducted by Roland Anderson and Jennifer Mather in Seattle aquarium: identically dressed volunteers were divided into two groups. One always fed the octopuses fish, and the other always touched them with a bristly stick (which octopuses don’t like.) Quickly the octopuses began to eagerly approach the people who had fed them, and avoid those who irritated them, even when the people left the fish and sticks behind. Some of the octopuses who had been irritated even blasted those volunteers in the face with salt water when they saw them!
Octopuses are individuals, too. Some are shy, others bold. One at Seattle Aquarium was named Emily Dickinson because she hid behind her tank filter all the time; another was named Leisure Suit Larry, because his arms were all over anyone who cared to touch him. And individuals have individual preferences.
The individual octopuses I knew almost always chose to interact with me when they had the chance. (The exception was when Octavia had laid eggs; she would not leave them for anything!) Sometimes they made a great effort to do so, detaching hundreds of suckers from the place they had been adhered and purposely moving out of their lair; and one even came up from the bottom of her tank when she was ill to gently touch and suck on my skin. They did this whether or not I had fish in hand. And they certainly did not do this with everybody. This makes me think they liked me. But what does that mean? Did they like me as they’d enjoy playing with a toy? Or did they like me as they’d relish the company of a friend? Of course we can never be sure WHY someone–anyone, human or otherwise, likes us. Is it because of the way we speak or think or smell or look? (Maybe I was just arm candy for an octopus!) I was and am supremely grateful that, for whatever reason, these animals chose to be with me when they could have easily avoided me instead.
A few years ago, a horrifying incident took place in Seattle, when a local teenager attacked and killed a Giant Pacific Octopus after months of training to do so. He later apologized after the city turned on him. How can we prevent other occurrences of abuse like this? Do they stem from mankind’s failure to recognize the octopus and other living creatures as sentient beings?
Humans, unfortunately, sometimes behave as if we are the only species capable of thinking and feeling. But whether you accept the evidence for evolution, or believe in the Creation stories of the world’s great religions, both tell us we humans are part of a family of living creatures, formed by the same forces from the same raw materials. Why should humans alone be capable of consciousness? Consciousness has survival value, after all. And who wants to be alone on an (imaginary) pinnacle? Not me!
How to prevent abuses like the one in Seattle? We must build compassion for everyone–human and animal, vertebrate and invertebrate. Learning about octopuses’ unexpected intelligence and emotions helps us do that. Octopuses are worth celebrating for many reasons, but one of the best is that knowing them can help us expand our moral universe, and help make room in our hearts (even though we humans have only one per person) to appreciate, and even to reverence, the many different, exciting and unexpected ways there may be to think, to feel and to know.
You ponder the conundrum of an octopus in captivity. Of a female octopus fanning her infertile eggs, of the isolation of a too-small tank. What do you think is the best plan for aquariums in the future? Many people would never otherwise encounter these amazing creatures—but perhaps there are better ways for them to do so without altering their lives?
In a perfect world, perhaps we would never keep animals in captivity. But “captivity” doesn’t have to be a jail. Think of the happy life of a dog in a loving home, for instance, versus the grueling struggle of a feral dog. If you look at it from the standpoint of an individual octopus, being captured wild to live out your life in an aquarium with ample space, a committed staff, and interesting things to do just beats the heck out of the fate of the average wild octopus: only 1 in 50,000 octopuses manage not to be eaten alive before they can lay eggs or mate with a female. (And their fellow sea creatures aren’t octopuses’ only predators. There is a fishery for octopus–many of whom are cut up alive to be used as bait for other fish.) Given our world as it is–and our seas under siege from pollution, overfishing, and global climate change—I think it’s not a sin, under the right conditions of course, to make a handful of well cared for octopuses into ambassadors from the wild sea.
What is your most memorable moment with an octopus?
There are so many! But I suppose the most memorable was one of my last visits with Octavia. She was old, she was sick, she was near death—and because she had been tending her eggs in her lair, she hadn’t looked up through the water at me for ten months. But when she was moved out of her lair at the end of her life, all those months later, she still clearly recognized me–and chose to use some of the last of her strength to rise to the top of her new enclosure, and touch and taste me once again.
Most of the people at your publishing house have remarked that after reading your book, they will not eat octopus ever again. I have to concur with that. Do you think if more people knew about the octopus and its intelligence, they’d be much less likely to view it as food?
I would hope so. But then, I’ve been a vegetarian for 30 years, and I believe that all animals, regardless of their intelligence as we measure it, love their lives—and that there is no taste on my tongue worth taking someone’s life.