Evil Otto

>> Tuesday, November 11, 2008

I've had occasion to discuss octopial intelligence before. It's something that fascinates me because the brain of an octopus is essentially an alien brain insofar as it evolved from a completely separate origin and lineage from the mammalian brain.

It also leads to funny stories like this one from the Telegraph, about Otto.

Otto is an octopus at the Sea Star Aquarium in Coburg, Germany, who apparently likes it dark, or at least is annoyed by a 2000-watt spotlight that was arranged over his tank. Electricians at the aquarium had been puzzled by a persistent short circuiting of the spot that would occur overnight, so one night they spent the night at the aquarium and were surprised to observe Otto climbing up onto the edge of his tank and squirting a jet of water at the lamp until it blew.

The article goes on to describe how "bored" Otto is--he engages in interior decoration and apparently amused himself at one point by throwing things at the glass in his tank until it was "damaged." Of course, we have no idea whether poor Otto is bored, or wants to escape, or is merely mean.

And there's an obvious ethical question that comes up with this. Octopi are reasonably intelligent creatures in most biologists' estimations. Are they smart enough to be self-aware, and if they are, is keeping one in an aquarium (perhaps even a big one with lots of toys) in any way akin to locking up a human?

Not all life is equally valuable. On the other hand, that's no excuse for causing needless suffering. There are all sorts of spiderweb-fine lines here, you know. I don't have an objection to using an animal to test a vaccine, for food, or dressing myself in one's hide. And I have to admit: I really like good octopus. And yet I feel sympathy for Otto, and have to wonder if he wouldn't be happier out in the ocean somewhere, and is he serving any good purpose for anybody juggling crabs in a fishtank in the middle of Germany? Contemplating the intelligence of octopi and my own love for eating their arms has to remind me, too, of a recent conversation with friends in which the subject of eating whale came up--in the hypothetical situation where I traveled to a country where whale might be served (and there are countries I would like to visit where whale has been, is, or could be on a menu), do I have a moral objection because whales are smart or merely a strong cultural bias that comes from being raised on issues of National Geographic (I quite possibly still have a 45rpm vinyl insert of humpback songs from a thirty-year-old issue of the magazine in a box around here somewhere).

This started out as a funny short entry about a octopus saboteur and ended up with a good bit more moral ambiguity and weighty concern than I meant. It's National Novel Writing Month, for one thing. And for another, there's the fact that I don't have a ready or even a consistent answer. And then there's also the fact that I'm unlikely to do better in discussing the ethics of eating than the late, brilliant David Foster Wallace did in his classic article, "Consider The Lobster," which you can and should read here in a free PDF--although I also have to point out that Wallace, whose IQ was probably at least triple mine, wasn't able to come up with a satisfactory answer, either.



mattw Tuesday, November 11, 2008 at 7:45:00 AM EST  

I don't know about the moral issues of keeping octopi on display like that. I'm not fully awake enough to think about it right now.

It does seem that there must be something lacking from the environment that the aquarium has built for him.

Random Michelle K Tuesday, November 11, 2008 at 8:29:00 AM EST  


I don't like zoos and circuses that use animals in their acts, because of the numbers of animals that have been treated badly. But I will happily go to aquariums that are well done. I actually dislike the ray tank at the National Aquarium because it's rather bare, and much prefer tanks that are large and have a fair amount of habitat.

The picture in the article is crappy, but it looks like they are providing Otto with plenty of entertainment.

I think part of the problem is that you are assuming that he is doing things like rearranging the tank and throwing rocks because he is unhappy. It could be that he is doing these things because he enjoys them, and these are things he might not have a chance to do in the wild, where he'd spend more time trying not to be eaten.

As you said, the brain of an octopi is completely alien to us. So I'd say there's just as good a chance he's saying, "Yippe! I love the life of luxury where I can play all day" as there is he's saying, "I'm bored. I'm bored. I'm bored."

And as much as I understand the need to testing of lab animals, the environments in which these animals live are sterile (both literally and figuratively), and there has been some research that these environments are as mental damaging as the experiences are physically damaging.

Is there a solution? I don't know. I've worked with experimental mice, and have a friend who spends most of her time doing so. But that still does not make me comfortable with it.

Janiece Murphy Tuesday, November 11, 2008 at 9:54:00 AM EST  

I'm torn, as well.

I won't go to zoos or to aquariums that keep mammals because they offend my sensibilities - I'm not going to pay money to feel bad.

And yet, facilities like the San Diego Wildlife complex and the Cincinnati Zoo generate good science, and funds for good science, that help us to be better stewards of our environment.

I understand (and deeply regret) the necessity of animal testing in terms of medication. So I'm morally resigned in that arena.

I'm still torn about eating meat. I feel bad when I go vegetarian, so I do eat meat, but I struggle with the environment in which food animals are kept in factory farms.

Eric Wednesday, November 12, 2008 at 11:03:00 AM EST  

Another practical issue with the zoos and aquariums, Janiece, is that they may not only help us be better stewards, but, sadly, they may end up being sanctuaries for some species. It's not inconceivable that endangered species including the panda and Tasmanian devil might go extinct in the wild....

Michelle: you're right that Otto might be happy and that might explain his behavior. I should have said that, but was on a riff with the negative feelings. The fact is, since we have no way to ask Otto how he feels, we have no way of knowing whether he throws things at the glass because he likes the funny sound they make, because he's angry, or for some other reason (and not even one that would necessarily make sense in human terms, for that matter).

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