The Soul of an Octopus

the soul of an octopusA lion named Cecile was killed by a lowlife dentist not too long ago. This was big news. Pro-Lion and Pro-Hunter formed groups. He was Evil! He was just thinning the Herd! It was a hot topic on the Morning Shows. The gang at CBS Morning News were all outraged that this great cat was killed.

A bit later, they talked about a new restaurant. A fun place where you picked out the fish you wanted to eat from a live tank. The fish was then killed, cooked, and served right in front of the customers. The very same self righteous people who bemoaned the death of a big cat, laughed at the fun of murdering a fish of your choosing.

The Soul of an Octopus tells the story of a researcher who gets to know a few octopuses over a series of visits to the New England Aquarium. Octopuses are odd creatures. Short lived, but highly intelligent. Also very damned creepy. There is a video of an octopus pushing itself through an inch high opening as it sneaked into another tank to eat the fish waiting there. We tend to think of the head of an octopus as being liken to our own, but it is not.

Our hero interacts with octopuses as you might interact with a dog or a cat. She touches them and they touch her. She tells about the different kinds of personalities the octopuses have. Some are playful, some are aggressive, but all of them seem to be intelligent and come to know her just as she comes to know them. She talks about how fish have dreams, and how scientists used to reserve the ability to dream for humans alone. Clearly none of those scientists ever owned a dog.

The idea that octopus share many of our higher functions is a bit disturbing. We don’t treat them very well. Of course, we don’t treat any animals very well. Tempest Granger watched a cow being killed once and asked where the cow had gone, since there now nothing there but a corpse. We are animals and they are animals, is it really that hard to believe that they have an interior life just as we do?

There is one story that I find disturbing, though I’m at a loss to fully explain why. One of the octopuses reaches a stage in its life where it lays eggs. Around a hundred thousand of them. But the octopus has not mated recently, so the eggs are infertile. This doesn’t stop the mother octopus from caring for her eggs. Grooming them and ensuring their safety with her body and attention. As I read this I kept thinking, why didn’t they get her a male octopus to mate with if they knew she was reaching the end of her life, when an octopus is driven to lay eggs? The answer is that octopus tend to eat each other. And what would they do with a hundred thousand baby octopuses? The author says that no one cares about the chicken eggs in our fridge, so why care about these octopus eggs? Because we don’t see the mother chicken.

I still find this story disturbing. What would you do with the babies? How about dumping them back in the sea? I find it odd that the author spends so much time convincing us that this strange little creature is just like us, but then brushes off the idea that we should give a damn about her children. Of course, the less we know about how animals are treated in zoos and aquariums the better.

Over the course of the book we follow Sy Mongomery around as she learns about the sea and the creatures that live there and the many people who are working to learn their secrets. Some of the stories are fun and amazing, some are a little dull and jargonĀ filled. Her interactions with the octopuses are amazing and make me wish I could spend a bit of time with one.

The Soul of an Octopus is a great book.

Jon Herrera

Jon Herrera

Writer, Photographer, Blogger.
Jon Herrera

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Writer, Photographer, Blogger.

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