Brighton Sea Life Centre is campaigning to get octopus removed from the human diet.
Staff believe their experiences, and those of their colleagues across the Sea Life estate, working with and caring for a variety of octopuses, have shown them to be sentient animals deserving of special status. “It’s been suggested for years that octopuses are as intelligent as the average pet dog,” said Curator Carey Duckhouse.“There are very few cultures who would consider easting a dog, and yet you can eat octopus in virtually any seafood restaurant anywhere.”
Now the octopus has been declared an ‘honorary vertebrate’ in EU law, to protect it from unnecessary suffering at the hands of vivisectionists.
Octopuses have been star attractions at Sea Life Centres for more than 30 years and Sea Life biologists have even developed a special protocol for their care. It includes ‘enrichment’ techniques…ways of keeping the octopus entertained.
“Octopuses love to play,” said Sea Life cephalopod specialist Kerry Perkins. “We’ve had octopuses that love unscrewing jam jars, dismantling Lego bricks, and some that even squirt water at passing aquarists. “We’ve a common octopus at one centre who likes his food delivered inside a toy Mr Potato Head, which he plays with long after finishing his dinner.”
Then of course there was Paul the octopus at the Sea Life Centre in Oberhausen, Germany, without doubt the world’s most famous invertebrate. Media coverage of Paul’s uncanny eight-straight accurate World Cup predictions almost eclipsed that for the tournament itself. Paul was honoured with a memorial at the Oberhausen attraction, in which his ashes were interred, but his greater legacy may well prove to have enhanced public consciousness of just how clever these animals are.
“The octopus’s biggest problem is the fact that it doesn’t have a skeleton,” said Kerry. “It is classed as a mollusk, many of which are shellfish. “For many cultures they are simply another food item to be harvested from the sea, and getting people to think of them in the same category as intelligent mammals will be a huge challenge.”
The octopus’s eight legs, blue blood, suckers which taste as well as feel, its uncanny camouflage skills, ink-squirting and ability to grow spikes all over its skin are all qualities which serve to make that challenge all the more daunting. “Coupled with the fact that they live in an alien environment breathing water instead of air, they make the octopus much more difficult for humans to empathise with,” said Kerry.
“It’s difficult to prove, but any aquarist who has worked for any length of time with octopuses will tell you they not only think…they are all individuals. “They can sulk, usually by retreating into a hidey-hole and refusing to be coaxed out again, they sometimes get angry and turn their darkest colour and jet about their display in a strop, and you always know when they’re really happy. You just know!”
Evidence of octopus intelligence has proved sufficient to convince Sea Life marine experts that hooking or spearing them and slaughtering them for human consumption is inhumane.
Brighton visitors, along with those to 43 other Sea Lifes, will be asked to sign a pledge never to eat octopus, and to discourage others from doing so if they can. The pledge will be near the Octopus Garden feature which displays 4 different species of octopus, including the fascinating Giant Pacific Octopus.
“This may just be the start of a very long haul,” said Kerry, “but someone needs to start the process, and we are probably in the strongest position to go into battle on the octopus’s behalf. “An octopus should excite fascination and admiration in humans, rather than their appetites,” she added. “Sea Life’s octopus displays, tailored to provide these animals with living conditions they are comfortable in and flourish in, are proving very effective at persuading more and more people to that view.”
Public opinion is certainly shifting in the octopus’s favour if the horror sparked by the killing and eating of a rare mutant six-legged octopus by US tourists in Greece two weeks ago, are anything to go by. There was also public outrage in Seattle when hunters caught and killed a giant Pacific octopus in a popular diving spot at Puget Sound a few months ago.
Published 15th August 2013
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