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Consider the Octopus

By Sy Montgomery Every Wednesday for two years, I drove two hours from New Hampshire to Boston to see my friend Octavia. When we’d look into each other’s eyes, she’d flush red with emotion. Then we’d embrace each other, arms wrapping around arms, and hug and play ’til one of us got tired or cold...

By Sy Montgomery

Every Wednesday for two years, I drove two hours from New Hampshire to Boston to see my friend Octavia.

When we’d look into each other’s eyes, she’d flush red with emotion. Then we’d embrace each other, arms wrapping around arms, and hug and play ’til one of us got tired or cold or had to leave for lunch.

What made our friendship unusual was that Octavia was a giant Pacific octopus.

Octavia belonged to a species endowed with such unearthly superpowers that you’d have to look to outer space or science fiction to find a creature less like a human.

Octopuses can taste with their skin, resist a pull 1,000 times their own weight, change color and shape, squirt ink, and inject venom. And even giant Pacifics—the biggest of the 250 octopus species, sometimes weighing 100 pounds—can pour their baggy, boneless bodies through an opening the size of an orange.

What’s more—and this is the most exciting aspect of this sea-dwelling “alien”—an octopus can recognize individual humans and even make friends with them. Octopuses are remarkably smart.

This is not just my opinion, and it’s not anthropomorphizing. Experiments at the Seattle Aquarium, conducted by the late Roland Anderson and his colleague, University of Lethbridge psychologist Jennifer Mather, proved that octopuses can recognize individual humans, just by looking up through the water at them, even when the people are identically dressed. Octopuses quickly learned to approach the people who had fed them, while they moved away from people who had touched them with a bristly stick.

Though this surprised the scientific community, it was already well known to octopus keepers. They recognize that the animals in their charge are individuals. This is reflected in their names. At the Seattle Aquarium, one octopus was named Emily Dickinson because she was so shy that she hid all day long. (As a result, she was soon released back into the Puget Sound, where she had come from.) Another was named Leisure Suit Larry, because the minute you peeled one of his arms off you, two others would glom on. A third was called Lucretia McEvil, because she constantly annoyed her keepers by dismantling objects in her tank.

Octopuses enjoy manipulating objects with their bendy arms and dexterous suckers. They open jars. They love puzzles. To keep them from becoming bored, an octopus enrichment manual has been developed, which recommends that keepers give octopuses the same toys to play with that we give our children. They put together and pull apart Legos. They dismantle Mr. Potato Head. Anderson found that octopuses like pill bottles (whose childproof caps they could easily open—a task eluding many Ph.D.s). He even documented that one octopus played with a pill bottle like a child might bounce a basketball off a wall: Using her siphon, the body part that enables octopuses to jet through the sea, she pushed the bottle into a stream of water circulating through the tank in such a way that it would come floating back to her so she could do it again. And again. She did this 20 times!

It’s no wonder that those who recognize the intelligence and personality of octopuses celebrate them. They’re among the most popular animals exhibited in public aquariums. In Seattle, after a teen speared, punched, and killed an 80-pound giant Pacific at Cove 2, a popular dive site, outrage from the local diving community prompted a push to make the site a protected marine park where fishing for octopuses is outlawed.

But meanwhile, at restaurants in the same city—as well as at dozens of others across the country, including Los Angeles and New York—octopuses and other animals can be legally mutilated, butchered, and served alive. Members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) recently released a video in which a chef can be seen pinning down a live octopus and cutting off her arms, which were then served—still writhing—to diners in a dish called “sannakji.” Other restaurants serve live lobster and shrimp “sashimi style” or slowly steam animals to death at the table in “live seafood” hot pots.

This is about as appealing as eating E.T. for dinner.

PETA is pushing for legislation that would ban such barbaric practices, especially in New York and Los Angeles, where the majority of such cruelty occurs. To support these efforts, please contact your legislators. You can find out more at

There are plenty of other delicious things to eat in the world. Watching an intelligent, sensitive being slowly die should not be part of our dining experience.

Sy Montgomery is the author of The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for nonfiction.

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