To research my books, films, and articles, I've been undressed by a curious orangutan in Borneo, swum with pink dolphins and electric eels in the Amazon, and handled a wild tarantula in French Guiana. I've hiked at altitude through the Gobi looking for invisible snow leopards; in India, I attempted to track man-eating tigers; in Papua, New Guinea, I searched the cloud forests for tree kangaroos.
For my latest book, my initial research expedition seemed modest in comparison: my travels took me merely from our home in New Hampshire to Boston. But my objective was more challenging than any I had previously attempted. I set out to make friends with an octopus — and in so doing, discover a fellow soul.
To many, an octopus is a scary monster, a gelatinous mass of tentacles, or a cousin of calamari to be served with lemon on the side. But over the three years that I came to know them personally, from the New England Aquarium to the oceans of French Polynesia and Mexico, I came to understand these otherworldly invertebrate animals as exquisitely intelligent, curious, emotional, and playful. Each is as individual as you or I.
The octopuses I met were individuals like Athena, the first giant Pacific octopus I ever touched. She was a feisty, elderly female with an armspan of about 10 feet who I met behind the scenes at New England Aquarium. When the keeper lifted the lid to her tank, she turned red with excitement and slid from her lair to greet me. She looked me directly in the eye. As I plunged my hands and arms into the 47 degree water to stroke her, her arms boiled up to cover mine with her strong, white, powerful suckers — suckers with which she was feeling and tasting me at the same time. Had a person attempted to taste me so soon after we met, I would have been alarmed; but since Athena was an octopus, I was thrilled. Although we couldn't have been more different — I, a terrestrial vertebrate constrained by joints and bound to air; she, a marine mollusk with not a single bone, who breathed water — she was clearly as curious about me as I was about her.
What struck me most, and changed me most, about knowing these alien and elastic creatures, was how quickly I came to love them.
All too soon after I met her, Athena died of old age (giant Pacifics only live 3-5 years). She was replaced by Octavia, whose personality was utterly different. She was reluctant to touch me at first, but when she finally did, she nearly pulled me into her tank. And the next time I visited her, she pulled a fast one. I was there with several other visitors, and we were all feeding her fish from a bucket, stroking her, absorbed in her changing color and the feel of her skin and the kiss of her suckers. When we were about to feed her another fish, we discovered to our surprise that the bucket was gone. She had outsmarted us all, stolen it right out from under our bony, human noses!
Octopuses' intelligence is legendary. They love to solve puzzles. They can figure out how to open locks, and can even best those pesky childproof caps on pill bottles, a feat that eludes many PhDs. But what struck me most, and changed me most, about knowing these alien and elastic creatures, was how quickly I came to love them.
One of the octopuses I loved best was Kali. She was a young, vigorous octopus who loved to play. Every Wednesday when I visited the aquarium, she’d rise to the top of her tank to greet me, and spend half an hour or more exploring my hands and arms with her arms and suckers. She even managed to train me and my friend, octopus enrichment expert Wilson Menashi. Unlike other octopuses — who seemed to enjoy a little play, then some fish, then more play, more fish — Kali wanted to eat first thing, before playtime, which she taught us by blasting us in the face with freezing-cold salt water if we didn’t hand over all the fish immediately. Afterwards she’d play with us happily. And if we had to end a play session early, she objected. As we tried to close the lid over her tank, she'd attempt to scramble out like an eager puppy trying to squirm out the back door.
What is it that draws us to love another soul? In some cases, it's the sameness we share. Kali and I, for instance, both loved to play. We both enjoyed each other's touch. And I think we appreciated each other's intelligence. But I was also thrilled by her otherness. Humans are long-lived and social; octopuses are short-lived and generally solitary. She could change color and shape. I could not. Our brains couldn’t have been more different. Unlike my brain, which sits like a walnut in a shell, Kali's skull-free brain wrapped around her throat. And most of her neurons weren't even in her brain, but in her arms, which meant that if something severed her arm, it could, for a while, go off and do stuff — like hunt. My arm, if severed, would just sit there doing nothing.
I loved Kali and Athena and Octavia, and the others I met in captivity and the wild, for all these reasons: for their sameness and otherness, for their individuality and intelligence. And I love them still, for they've given me a gift that changed my life: they showed me that intelligence is more varied, and emotions more universal, than I had ever imagined.
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is a naturalist, documentary scriptwriter, and author of 20 acclaimed books of nonfiction for adults and children, including the memoir The Good Good Pig
, a New York Times
bestseller, and the new book The Soul of an Octopus
. The recipient of numerous honors, including lifetime achievement awards from the Humane Society and the New England Booksellers Association, she lives in New Hampshire with her husband, border collie, and flock of chickens.