I love animals, I love learning about animals, and I love reading books about animals. My main interests are animal behavior and animal intelligence. One of my favorite and most illuminating books on this subject was Animal Wise (2013) by Virginia Morell. Morell went into detail about some of the amazing, often unknown, talents of animals from ants to rats to birds. I have looked for similar books since and found nothing quite like it.
So I was pretty excited when I discovered The Soul of an Octopus (2015) by Sy Montgomery. Not only was it a finalist for the National Book Award for nonfiction, but octopuses are incredibly interesting. I had just watched My Octopus Teacher on Netflix, which had some stunning footage of a wild octopus in the ocean. Unfortunately, this book did not live up to my expectations. It was not what I had expected, and it turned out to be a frustrating experience.
I was hoping to learn about how octopuses live, how their odd bodies worked, and read observations of how smart they were. Instead, The Soul of an Octopus is more the story of a woman who visited an aquarium in New England. The aquarium houses four octopuses in quick succession: Athena, Octavia, Kali, and Karma. Montgomery is able to go behind the scenes and interact with them. Later she learns how to scuba dive and is able to see some wild octopuses in the ocean.
My main problem with The Soul of an Octopus is that I didn’t feel like I learned very much. Montgomery’s interactions with the octopuses were pretty repetitive. She’d stick her hands in the water and the octopus would come up and explore her. There was some scientific talk about how their bodies worked, but it wasn’t written in a very approachable way. Much of the information presented was asked as a question. Could the octopus know Montgomery was in pain by touching her? Can octopuses communicate between their arms without it going through their heads? Do octopuses not like smokers? If Montgomery had answered these questions, I would have been more satisfied. I’m not sure if the problem is that there simply isn’t much known about octopuses or that Montgomery chose not to include more science in the book.
Once Montgomery went off on a tangent describing how an octopus was seen keeping a number of crabs together in front of it. She said that octopus ink blocks oxytocin, and then she somehow made the connection that their ink would help to subdue crabs. But octopuses use ink to aid in their escape, was the octopus with the crabs even using its ink? And blocking the “cuddle” emotion is not going to make crabs more pliable. It just doesn’t make sense and she was guessing anyway. And even her fellow workers at the aquarium said she was reading into things.
One recurring issue I found was the question of keeping these incredible animals captive. One sentence, Montgomery was saying how incredibly sensitive and intelligent these animals were. But then she described that, “[p]revious octopuses, who had all come as young pups, had lived behind the scenes in tanks or barrels that were completely barren.” (44) These octopuses couldn’t even change color because they had so little stimulation. Montgomery kept talking about how meaningful touching an octopus was for her, but I just wondered how different the confined octopuses might be if allowed to reach their full potential.
Octopuses don’t live very long–even the largest species only three to four years. But the octopuses didn’t exactly fair well at the aquarium. Octavia was around long enough to lay thousands of eggs. But she was barren because she never had the opportunity to mate. Montgomery wrote this as a beautiful thing instead of something tragic. “[F]or many months, Octavia’s constant attentions to her eggs were rituals rich and full of meaning.” (235) But then when Octavia was old and near death, they moved her from the better-sized display aquarium to the small barrel in order to make room for the younger octopus. Montgomery decided that Octavia felt safer in the barrel, but that seemed to be based more on her own wishes than anything objective. It seemed that a different aquarium on the west coast was able to balance the needs of the octopuses better. They would introduce a male and female octopus on Valentine’s Day and then release the female into the ocean, so she could lay fertilized eggs and die in a more natural way.
Kali was another octopus that did not fare well at the aquarium. She seemed to be very inquisitive and energetic, but because Octavia did not die as quickly as expected, they had nowhere to put her but that small, barren barrel. So for months, this incredibly intelligent animal was stuck with almost no stimulation besides some visits from humans and feedings. When she was finally moved to a bigger cage, she escaped her very first night, squeezing her body through a tiny opening and dying on the floor of the aquarium.
I don’t doubt that Montgomery and the workers and volunteers loved and cared about the octopuses in their care. However, Montgomery seemed too ready to defend capturing these animals without critically thinking about how it affected them–or even what better conditions might have done for them. I would have liked at least a more nuanced discussion on the subject. I’d say that Kali, at least, made her preference for freedom known.
Note: I read this book on Kindle, so the pictures were not of the best quality. I’m sure seeing the pictures in the printed book would have helped.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.