November 13, 2013 | 1
The comedian Tracy Morgan is known for his outlandish sensibilities, caricatured by his character Tracy Jordan on the NBC show 30 Rock. Given his obvious penchant for the odd, perhaps it’s no surprise that he’s opted to own a pet octopus, which he featured in a tweet last year.
This week his octopus, a giant Pacific octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) named Bwyadette is getting a new tank, courtesy of the aquarium specialists on the Animal Planet show Tanked. “She’s been calling me a slumlord lately,” Morgan tells the hosts of the show. “I want to get her something nice. This is my baby…I really want her home to be comfortable for her.”
In the show’s preview clip, the octopus is shown swimming around in a relatively small tank (for her size), which seems to be leaking—threatening collapse.
Those creature comfort neglects aren’t the only reason Morgan’s pet octopus sets a poor example for viewers.
Octopuses, in general, are not a great choice for a pet. For one, they are incredibly intelligent and seem to easily get bored. One study [pdf] revealed that octopuses in small tanks outfitted with flowerpots, stones, beads and shells still showed signs of distress and even self-mutilation. Octopuses in a more stimulating environment, with larger tanks, crushed coral, plants and a view to a live fish in a nearby tank appeared healthier and happier. So your average fish tank setup probably isn’t going to cut it for an octopus.
Many species of octopus are also nocturnal. So despite your interest in observing them during the day, they might spend daylight hours hiding in a dark spot waiting for night to come out and explore.
Which leads to another drawback: octopuses do spend a good deal of their time hiding in their dens. Given that soft squishy body, they’re quite vulnerable in the wild. So they have adapted by being good at hiding—whether by camouflage or seeking shelter in small hiding places. And research has shown that as they get to know a confined environment, they tend to spend less and less time outside of their den exploring.
Octopuses are also incredibly sensitive to changes in the water—especially pH balance. Thanks to their copper-based, blue blood, they can survive in very cold, low-oxygen environments. But this adaptation also means that they have real trouble absorbing oxygen if the water becomes too acidic (a concern both for octopus keepers as well as those following climate-driven changes in ocean pH).
Finally, octopuses simply don’t live very long. Smaller octopuses, such as the California mudflat octopus (Octopus bimaculoides), which are more popular pet choices than the large giant Pacific octopus (more commonly found on display in zoos and public aquariums), only live for a year or so. And even the giant Pacific octopus rarely sees five birthdays. (Octopuses are also tricky to breed in captivity, so most octopuses are caught from the wild.)
There is no question that octopuses seem like enticing pets. Unlike fish or even cats, they really interact with us; they study us and respond to our actions. One researcher I spoke to for my book likened his laboratory octopuses to his dog. Each day when he entered the lab, his octopuses seemed to great him the way his dog might when he got home.
But, at the end of the day, a dog makes a better choice for a pet than an octopus. Perhaps most importantly, dogs have been bred to be our companions. Even if our living conditions aren’t a dog’s ideal (an apartment rather than a farm), it sure beats the confines of an isolated tank. And anyway we’ve yet to “domesticate” a cephalopod species.
To his credit, Morgan encouraged the designers of the new octopus enclosure to consider what might make the animal happy. “You have to be in the world, in the mind of an octopus,” he instructed them. “So you have to feel the octopus. Can we do that? Close your eyes, and move like the octopus…”
Illustration courtesy of Ivan Phillipsen