The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery


In April this year came news of the escape of Inky, an octopus in New Zealand, from his enclosure, who went down a 50-metre drainpipe and on to the sea. Over the course of a week I heard or read this story several times, told with great interest and much respect for the determination and ability of octopuses to escape. I learned that the plural of octopus is not octopi, as many would guess. This book explains that you cannot add a Latin ending to a Greek word. Good to know.

The author is a naturalist and best known for her book The Good Good Pig, a memoir of her beloved pet Christopher Hogwood. It is clear that she has an amazing level of affection of all manner of animals. Having become surprisingly fond of two pet rats belonging to my daughter, I sort of understand her enthusiasms. Over the course of several years she became well acquainted with various octopuses at the New England Aquarium. There were a number of them because it turns out an octopus doesn't live awfully long. In each case the author and those who work or volunteer at the Aquarium became quite enamored and were devastated at their loss. 

It's hard to imagine being willing to reach into a tank of cold water to touch a slimy creature with very strong suckers that could easily pull you in, but the author was convincing. She described their intelligence, their curiosity to see their visitors, and their playfulness. Though they have no brain, they could take fish offered with one arm, while responding to being petted by a person on a different arm, and with another arm steal from a nearby bucket of fish at the same time.

The author describes the dedication with which those at the Aquarium cared for the animals. To illustrate that level of care, she told the story of a keeper in a zoo trying to treat a kangaroo that had fallen ill. The keeper called a zoo in Australia to ask what they would do in that case. The answer was that they would shoot the sick animal and capture another one. 

Sy Montgomery, The Soul of an Octopus, Atria Books, 2015, 272 pages (I read the kindle version). Available at the public library and from Amazon.

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