And then there was the time an octopus asked for my help

Two smoking octopuses

I’m sure you’ve all been asked for help by a sea creature at some time or other; who hasn’t right? I’m not sure how you handled it when it happened to you, but I’m not pleased about how I handled it when it happened to me. It went like this…

Several years ago I was visiting a sea life centre. As I rounded a corner, I saw a tank shaped like a cylinder on its end. To give you an idea of size, roughly, if I hugged my arms around it, my hands would be about one foot shy of meeting. Standing around the tank were a few kids, laughing and knocking on the glass.

As they moved away, I approached. Slumped in the bottom, looking lifeless, was a large octopus. Do you know much about octopuses? They are considered to be the most intelligent invertebrate out there (interesting octopus fact no.1). I knelt down and looked into his eyes. Take it from me these were very sad eyes. A huge rush of sympathy surged through me; this poor creature was in a tank that wasn’t even big enough for it to extend its arms properly. The largest octopuses have a maximum arm span of 9m, and weigh up to 270kg (interesting octopus fact no.2), and furthermore there was nowhere for him to hide from the hoards of prying eyes, no plants, nothing. Octopuses have the ability to change their colour, pattern, and texture to match their surroundings in order to hide from predators (interesting octopus fact no.3), but even that skill wasn’t going to help him here. This is how they do it in the wild, please watch, it’s very cool:

The octopus felt my sympathy, I’m telling you he felt it. Octopuses have three hearts, did you know that? (interesting octopus fact no.4). He came to life, rose up from the bottom, locked eyes with me and waved his arms as best he could in that limited space. And we connected, I’ve never felt such a strong connection with an animal before. It was hypnotic, I felt overwhelmed by emotion. It was like I could feel his pain, and he was saying “Yes, yes, you understand my plight, please help me.” I moved around the tank a couple of times, and he moved with me, keeping his eyes locked with mine.

I wanted to help him, but what could I do? There was only one choice. Carefully, I lifted the top off the tank, reached in, and using all my strength I hoisted him out of the water. That was one heavy octopus I can tell you, and I ran, I ran out of the sea life centre and across the road to the sea and threw him in. Ok, no, I didn’t do that, but I played that scenario in my head as a possibility and clearly had to discount it. Although if I had done it, he might have been able to help me because octopuses are able to solve problems, such as opening jars to reach prey (interesting octopus fact no.5). Instead I grabbed a chain and padlock and chained myself to the tank and then shouted over and over that I would not be moved until this octopus was saved! Again, no, I didn’t do that either. Actually what I did was walk away.

I told myself I would do something about it. Coincidentally, as we left the sea life centre, there was a group of people outside with placards protesting about the conditions that some of the sea creatures were being kept in. Apparently they had been there when we went in, only I hadn’t noticed them then. I recounted my observations to them and signed their petition, and told myself that I had indeed done something about helping my octopus friend. But deep down I knew it was a cop-out. I’d signed my name on a piece of paper. Big deal. Basically I didn’t do anything. And I still feel bad about it.

Octopuses live for one to two years in the wild (interesting octopus fact no.6), so I’m guessing it’s too late for me to help that guy. I’m very sorry I didn’t do more to help you little fella. And while we’re at it, I’m sorry if I’ve ever eaten any of your relatives in a paella.

I can’t help him, but maybe I can do something to help octopuses in general. I could adopt an octopus or I maybe I could help save the Pacific Northwest tree octopus. But I think the most important thing I can do is learn from it, and the transferable lesson I take forward is….

Signing your name on a bit of paper doesn’t cut it, when an octopus asks for your help.

———————–

photo credit: Atomic Mutant Flea Circus via photopin cc

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62 responses to “And then there was the time an octopus asked for my help

  1. I have conflicting emotions about zoos and the like. It makes me deeply sad to see a caged animal. But if it weren’t for zoos, I’d never have see a giraffe or ape or octopus, for that matter. Thankfully, zoos are being transformed from caged prisons to habitats.

    Did you see the documentary about the killer whales at Sea World? Heartbreaking. I’m done with that place.

    I wish I had three hearts. Wendy obliterated mine when I was 24. That would’ve left me with two more.

    • Yes, I have mixed feelings about zoos too. Some of them do a lot of important conservation work and help protect some species from extinction, and as you say, they give people the opportunity to see animals they might never see otherwise, and perhaps that helps people develop a respect and understanding for animals. But on the other hand, what right do we have to take away their freedom?

      I didn’t see that documentary no, I’ll look out for it.

      That Wendy has a lot to answer for!

      • I’m not trying to imply that inanimate objects are the equivalent to animals, but I get the same feeling when I stroll through the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Egypt galleries. Who are WE to remove all this stuff from their intended resting spots?! We’re no better than grave robbers! On the other hand…seeing a mummy is cool x 1,000.

        Re: Wendy. You don’t know that half of it, sister! She was “pre-engaged” to an amateur weight lifter who could have crumbled little me into a tiny ball and tossed me over his shoulder like a spent chicken leg. Yet, she couldn’t resist my animal charms. Raarrrr. It was a bad scene all the way around.

      • You MUST see this documentary. I’d also recommend The Cove if you can get around to watching that too. I love sea life, nature and animals, and have taken big steps in recent years to avoid places that exploit these things. I agree some zoos are great, but most are side shows.

  2. Awe. Anyone who can feel for an octopus is a kind hearted person. I’m surprised at their lifespan. I’d have guessed it to be much longer.

  3. You are a good person Vanessa-Jane Chapman. At least you took the time to connect with it and let it change you. That’s more than most people would do!

  4. You have such a good heart, Vanessa! At least you shared a moment with him and gave him a little companionship in his lonely life. Does make one sad, though. :(

    I enjoyed learning some octopus trivia, and you’re right, that video is really cool. Wonderful post!

  5. I have learned so much about the octopus, today. I know of the small tanks..and have seen very large octopus in them…so sad…especially since it was in one of our highly respected and heavily visited aquariums.

    I LOVED the video clip you showed! My childhood hero was Jacques Cousteau. I wanted to be down there photographing all of the sea creatures the ocean! Even though I didn’t do that…I did pick up a baby octopus and let it slither across my hand…and any student who was interested. The suction cup sensation was creepy and cool at the same time. After a few minutes, we let it go…and it did shoot off its ink when it swam away. Now. I wonder if it did that because it was scared?

    • I always remember my grandmother talking about Jacques Cousteau a lot when I was a child, I think he was her hero too! It is truly fascinating down there isn’t it. I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to go right down deep myself, but I’m glad others are so that we can enjoy their wonderful photos and videos! Apparently the ink is meant to cloud the vision of their predator so that they can dash off without the predator seeing what way they went! So I guess that does mean he was a little scared of you.

  6. I adore octopi. Adore them. I like then so much I already knew all of the facts you provided (except, ahem, the fact that they have three hearts).

    I once (OK, many times) asked Ellen if she would ever let me own the octopus’ tiny cousin, the cuttlefish. Her answer was a resounding “No.” I can’t say I blame her; after all, she saw what a sucker I became when I caught a couple of field mice.

    • They really are very strange looking creatures aren’t they. I bet you do a great drawing of an octopus Mike – am I right? I bet you’ve done some before, and I bet they’re GREAT! Right? But yes, I can understand Ellen being reluctant to endorse the cuttlefish owning.

      • I have been known to doodle an occasional octopus, yes. Perhaps I will need to post one in the not-too-distant future (with a link to your blog, of course).

        BTW: I haven’t forgotten our Waffle brunch plans. How’s your February?

  7. What a moving story – connecting with the octopus must have been incredible beyond description. I think calling the aquarium and asking why that Octopus was in that small area and letting them know your feelings would be good . But I love the idea of adopting an octopus!

    I love the factoids – they are interesting creatures and so clever.

  8. A touching story, Vanessa. I do believe we have more empathy nowadays, for living creatures. Love all the interesting facts you included.
    Here’s one for you. Do you know why octopuses live such short lives? People are eating them in their paella. ;-)

  9. My youngest can relate to this. We were at an aquarium where there was a tide pool with animals in it that you could pet. Nearby was a fake, dry tide pool with plastic animals in it. Feeling they were probably thristy and dying, my daughter put the plastic star fish, crabs, etc. into the real tide pool. Later on as we hastily walked away I heard some kid yell, “Hey, this lobster is fake!”
    Just kidding that last part isn’t true. We removed the toy ones and put them back where they belonged. But my daughter clearly felt the plight!

  10. True! The octopi have so many more hands to hold up and wave around, begging for help. They after all need help, just like every other cute being.

  11. Only you, Vanessa. Only you. Compassion for everything and everyone . . . including a blob of color-changing jello.

  12. I think Dennis’s comment perfectly sums up what I want to say. The younger we can experience such feelings of compassion and empathy, the better society could be. But often I’m afraid too few children are learning such life lessons these days.

  13. That was a great story. What is paella? And it really doesn’t matter because I wouldn’t eat anything with octopus in it anyway. I always feel sorry for anything locked up in a cage or a tank of water. When I was growing up we had a sort of “zoo” in the town park. There was a grizzly bear, some peacocks, a fox, and a lion named General Sheridan. He never looked happy in that cage, and you could hear him growling from all over town.

    • Paella is a Spanish rice dish which contains various combinations of meat and/or seafood, I don’t think the traditional version had octopus in it, and they don’t all contain it now – it’s one of those dishes that different people have very different ideas about!

  14. VJC, I know your plight too well. I was in South Dakota, USA, and my ex-boyfriend and I stopped off at a reptile garden. While it was cool to see so many snakes (some of which weren’t in captivity anywhere else) they had a crocodile (or was it an alligator?) that was in a tank so small he couldn’t properly turn around. He just lay there, totally deflated.

    Just because we have the power to wield, doesn’t mean we should.

    • That’s awful about the crocodile/alligator, poor thing. In a wildlife park near us they have a crocodile/alligator (I’m not sure which either now!), and even though it’s enclosure looked a little small to me, it did at least have space to move around, water to crawl in and out of, and greenery to hide in. Still not ideal though of course.

  15. tender hearts like yours are the saviours of our humanity–

  16. That’s a great story, Vanessa. I’m afraid I would have fallen into the same plight of not being able to do anything. :(

    Thankfully, zoos have become more refuges and habitats for animals in recent years. While some sadly remain side shows, lots of them do participate in conservation efforts, trying to rebuild populations or protect the animals in them. That doesn’t make me stop wondering if the animals in the cages and tanks are actually happy, though. I’m one of those people who believes animals can be happy, and sad, and everything in between. I definitely think you felt some empathy with that octopus. Those eyes must have said it all.

    • Yes, I was commenting to someone else about the good conservation work done by a lot of zoos, and some really do create wonderful habitats for them, but it’s still hard to see when they’re locked up. I always enjoy seeing animals when I’ve gone to zoos, but feel uncomfortable about their situation at the same time, I guess that’s the same for many people.

  17. I had a moment with an orangutang at London Zoo many moons ago – his name was Charlie, he looked so lonely and lost, so we idled away half an hour passing things between us, to and fro, like twigs and stuff, just because we could.

    He and all his kind, and all the primates, across the whole world will be extinct within just a few decades, because we don’t care about them. And then we will be just the only primate left in the world, forever. I wonder whether we will then feel Charlie’s loneliness?

    We don’t care about our cousin primates, we don’t care about your octopus, and we don’t care about our shared home, Earth. It’s already too late to change this. But it’s quite sad really, isn’t it?

    • Fun orangutang moment there!

      I guess the problem is that while there are people who care, there aren’t enough people who do, and out of those who do care, there aren’t enough who do something about it. It’s always easier to turn a blind eye and assume someone else will sort it out. We can all be guilty of that.

  18. This story haunts me, Vanessa. I really can’t deal with any animal suffering. As you probably know, I’m a huge wolf fan, and I went to a wolf sanctuary in Maine, a place that harbors wolves once owned as pets. They are too tame to be put back into the wild, yet they are really too wild to be kept as a pet. So, they are stuck, at the end of the line as it were, and it is one woman who has given her life to these animals. She keeps them in pens on her property and provides veterinary care, food, entertainment, anything to kind of help them live as wild a life as they can without actually setting them free. There is no way they could fend for themselves in the wild; they would most likely wander into someone’s backyard because that’s what they know.

    I was able to go into those pens and sit with those wolves. I got to pet them and I had my photo taken with them (one is posted on my blog). I do what I can, I donate, I sign petitions, I share on FB and Twitter, but I feel like you do. It’s not enough.

    And that’s not even the worst of the wolves’ plight. Many are being massacred illegally out west because of the supposed threat against livestock. It’s a travesty. Not just wolves, but all creatures, really. None of them are truly safe against humans.

    • Wolves are so beautiful. It makes me wonder how they come to be pets in the first place – how do people think that a wolf is a good pet to have? Thank goodness there are people like that woman creating a place for them and giving them the best life they can hope to have.

      It’s like greyhounds, the ones that are used for racing, they only race for a couple of years and then when they are retired, there are people and organisations who take them and find homes for them – what would happen to them otherwise when they are no good for racing anymore? I know a few people who have ex racing greyhounds as pets and they make lovely pets.

      One of the other blogs I follow posted a YouTube video yesterday of an elephant that was deliberately killed because it had rolled a car over with people in it – this was in Africa, in it’s own habitat and you can clearly see on the video that the car is pursuing the elephant, trying to get really close to it, and the elephant is showing it’s annoyance for a while before doing what it did, they had plenty of time to drive away but they chose to keep effectively antagonising it. The people weren’t hurt, but the elephant was subsequently killed by the rangers. Why?

      • That elephant story enrages me. I saw a documentary about elephants — they cry real tears, and they truly have long memories. They remember family members even after being separated from the herd as babies. Amazing creatures. Sorry, but I really wish ill will on those people who antagonized that poor elephant.

  19. My daughter was telling me about the Killer Whale documentary she watched recently and it did make me feel so sad for these animals. I feel your pain for the octopus. I’ve felt that way about the polar bear at the zoo who acts a little psychotic doing the same thing over and over again in a mindless blur.

    • Someone else mentioned that killer whale documentary, I wonder if it’s available over here, I’d quite like to see that. Yes, I’ve seen that with animals, where they look like they’ve gone a bit mad, doing repetitive behaviours, maybe it’s something they do in the wild, but I’d be surprised, it doesn’t look right.

  20. I had the same nagging feeling when I signed a petition against the local landfill site, Vanessa – signing a bit of paper wouldn’t help… and it didn’t. Hey ho!
    At least you had a connection with the octopus. I had none with the landfill, and that makes all the difference.

    • I think signing petitions makes us feel like we’ve done something, or at least registered our disapproval in some way, but it’s not enough if we really want to try and make a difference is it. Also, next time, try harder to connect with the landfill, I’m sure it’s possible.

  21. Wow. That is said. But I am kind of mesmerized by that video. I know I’ve seen such things on nature shows before but that just boggles the mind. The ocean is a place of wizardry!

  22. I’ve seen petitions that have changed the law — so signing one isn’t always an exercise in futility. If the aquarium has a Facebook page, it also might be effective to post your experience — companies are quick to respond to bad press.

  23. I have to go back to what Dennis said. Well done for taking the time to connect and make a stand by promoting their plight.

    I’ve been to a number of zoos and wildlife parks in my younger days and have mixed feelings about them. To see lions and tigers and bears …

    But when they look so sad it doesn’t feel right. On the other hand some of these animals in their natural habitat might become extinct without help in captivity. Fine line.

    Good luck with your crusade for Mr and Mrs Octopus.

  24. I love Aquaman, but I steer clear of most sea creatures.

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