June 26, 1992


Behold the octopus; so called because it has eight lives instead of nine like other pusses.

Author unknown

This summer Lu and I visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Since my childhood, when I spent many a day at the Bronx Zoo, I have loved zoos and aquariums(or is it aquaria) and have visited many in various cities.

Fifty years ago, a zoo's primate house consisted of groups of one or two non-human primates in cramped cages, where they would huddle in corners. Occasionally a gorilla or chimpanzee would entertain the multitudes by spitting or throwing dung at them. Now zoos have large habitat areas where an intelligent, sentient animal can lead a reasonably pleasant life. In exchange for its freedom, an ape can have safety, medical care, lots of food and a chance to see another species of primate staring at him and make funny noises.

Aquariums have also come a long way. Some of the larger ones have immense tanks containing schools of large fish that swim around in circles. There are also places where people can touch some of those animals without backbones.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is the best of the lot and it attracts visitors from all over the world. Not only does it have large tanks, but many of the exhibits consist of habitat groups which approximate natural conditions. Tide pools are complete with waves that wash over them at natural intervals. There is a kelp forest that can be seen at several levels, and a seashore complete with shore birds. You can sit down and watch movies and videos when your feet give out --as they inevitably will. If you are interested in housekeeping, you can even watch the window washers, in scuba gear, wiping the glass inside of the tanks.

As a consequence of it being a very wonderful place, there are long lines to buy tickets, waiting to get in, and lots of people competing to get close to the denizens of the deep. In the City of Monterey, everything costs money, with the cheapest parking being $1 per hour. Even with those inconveniences, it is worth the wait. Some of the wait can be reduced by buying tickets in advance. In a morning, you will be able to see what a marine biologist may spend many years getting to see. The jellyfish show is marvelous. Wondrous varieties pulsate in well illuminated tanks. It is a fabulous place, thanks to the untiring efforts of a large number of people. It also takes big money to keep it going.

They have a small group of sea otters that are friends with their keepers and the keepers and otters put on a show at feeding time. The rest of the time, the otters loll about in the sun (when there is sun) and act as if it was Sunday all year long.

The way that the octopuses were treated reminded me of the zoos of 50 years ago. One giant octopus huddled in the corner of one of the larger tanks and a small one was in a tiny tank in one of the touching sections. You couldn't touch it because the tank was covered. I felt sorry for the beast, as I used to feel sorry for the chimpanzee in its tiny cage.

The March, 1991 issue of National Geographic has a fine article on the octopus, whence much of my information comes. I know very little about the octopus and would like to know much more.

The octopus is thought to be closely related to the snail and is classified as a mollusk. It is hardly a snail. It has two eyes that are anatomically similar to ours. Having no bones is to the beast's advantage, allowing it to curl up in relatively tiny spaces. It has no protective shell, as do many other mollusks, so it relies on its intelligence to defend itself; it knows how to hide and uses camouflage. It has been compared to a house cat in intelligence and it exhibits territoriality, aggression, fear and curiosity. No other invertebrate comes close to the intelligence of the octopus. It displays emotion by changing color, which has been compared it to blushing and anger. It can change color rapidly to match its surroundings. It can throw out a liquid smoke screen in its defense and should it loose an arm, it will regrow a new one. It can swim rapidly by jet propulsion and is a proficient hunter. Its mating ritual and performances is elaborate enough to grace the pages of Playboy or Penthouse magazine.

The female guards its immense clutch of eggs until the young hatch. In the process, she starves and usually dies. It is the ultimate in maternal devotion; she staunchly believes that every fertilized egg has a right to life; even though it may be a very short life. Of her approximately 80,000 eggs, only a few will make it to adulthood.

Octopuses of all ages, babies to giants, are caught, cooked and served to Homo sapiens'. They have a nice texture when deep fried or sauteed. The denizens of the deep also love to eat octopus. The octopus is in danger from any carnivore that is larger than itself. It has learned to hide in anything large enough to contain it. Fishermen lower an unbaited box and a few days later, haul it up with it's octopus occupant. The octopus finds out too late that it's a trap. It's a dog-eat-dog world in spades. What kind of influence does such a hostile and perilous world have on an intelligent being?

Since the octopus isn't a vertebrate, aquarium people treat it with considerably less respect than they do marine mammals --despite its apparent intelligence. Since it isn't a close relative of ours, it couldn't have much in the way of feelings.

I think that the aquarium is missing a bet by not taking advantage of the octopus's intelligence. A trained octopus act could be a major attraction, much as the otters are. You haven't been hugged until you've been hugged by a beast with eight arms. Nor have you been kissed until one of those suckers impinges on your lips. With a beak that can crack crabs and a radula that can bore into clam shells, the possibilities for thrills are almost limitless.

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