To write an octopus right

Dec 4, 2013
Tucson, Arizona
Hey TONMO peeps,

I'm a short-story writer working on a fiction piece that focuses on a scientist and his octopus (octopus vulgaris). In the story, sadly, the octopus dies (the story is really about the grief we humans feel when we lose an animal connection in our life). And long before I came an "official lurker" I was reading many of the threads on the site in order to learn more details about possible causes of death. What I've learned helped me immensely, but while searching the threads have uncovered some cool details that expand my own knowledge of cephalopods, I've discovered I have more questions specific to the narrative of my story.

What do you think, TONMO, can you help me out? Point me to threads that may provide the right answers, or share anecdotes from your own octopuses?

Here are the type of questions I'm looking for input on:

Equipment/technical questions: the story takes place in a lab where they are doing research on octopus intelligence, when Philip, the octopus, dies. So, they have to take him out of the tank. What is the name for the tool one might use to scoop him out? (While writerly to call it a scoop, the characters in the story would use a common name for it.)

Personality questions: While in focused on the aftermath of the octopus' death, several characters have fond memories of him, so I get to describe some of his antics. I think many people underestimate the ways aquatic animals can be engaged with people, and I want to have an example that reveals his character. Growing up, my friend had a saltwater tank with fishes in it, and whenever her father sat down to watch TV, one of her fishes would go to the surface and flick water on him. Would a common octopus do something similar--flick water out of the tank? Or, what other ways might an octopus "greet" or "play" with people?

Much thanks for all your help,

I am not sure about in a lab (labs are usually quite different from home environments) but I and likely most other hobbyists pick up the dead animals with hands as they are often entwined in the rock work. If I am quite sure my animal will die within a day or so (they go through a senescent period and their last day is often obvious), I will place the animal in a net that is suspended in the water column to keep the clean up crew from picking at the dieing skin.

I am not sure how many people that work with animals in a lab allow any kind of mental attachment. If an experimenter has completed work, the animal is usually euthanize and some hobbyist will do likewise during their last days of senescence. There are some new rules for the science community in the EU regarding cephalopods (they have gained vertebrate status for experimentation purposes). The link may help with some of the latest lab directions parts of your story. We are not restricted legally in the US but the our science community tends to follow suit. You will see the acquisition, handling and euthanization mentioned in most papers now, regardless of where the experiments take place. This is likely partly because of the EU directive, partly because we agree with proper humane animal handling and partly because publishing may require statements of humane handling.

For a glimpse at behavior studies and some of the terminology, you might read through some of the abstracts included in the External Articles on Behavior and Intelligence thread.

The kind of attachment you suggest is more likely to come from caretakers at home or in a public aquarium than in a lab. Here is a set of articles and podcast by a journalist that may give you some ideas. There is also a moving fictional podcast story I will continue to try to locate that combines the thought of proper scientific study, euthanization, scientists becoming attached and public aquariums and their keepers. It starts a little slowly but is quite moving and addresses a lot of topics for a a 45 min story. I found the post but the BBC is no longer broadcasting this show in their Afternoon Drama series. I did locate a link that is still active (search for The Octopus on linked page)

For a brief list of some of the things octopuses have done that endear us, see the Cephalopod Antics thread.

It is hard to point you to specifics on the sadness when one dies. One of the warnings I try to give new keepers is that the life span is short and to keep them means you have to accept the fact that you will become attached to an animal that won't be with you more than a year. The most painful is when an animal dies because of a keepers carelessness, generally coming from an unsecured top followed by a lethal escape. I have two personal instances but I am not sure they will be helpful (Octane and Margay) . Alternately, thinking you should do something and put it off, that appears to have caused the animals demise (Tuvalu) or you go to great lengths to give an animal a proper home and it inks so badly it suffocates (El Diablo). El Diablo was a vulgaris and the full journal may be helpful to your story.
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DWhatley! Thank you! "Antics" was the key word to finding the right thread! I've already found some anecdotes there that will work. Interestingly, one of the elements of my story is that Philip loves a rubber ducky, which was neat to see in the El Diablo thread.

Indeed, the story is somewhat fantastical and a key part of why the character's grief about the death of his octopus is ignored is because he's in a lab setting, so fellow scientists don't consider it worth considering. Also, the researcher is primarily a linguist, so I'm hoping there's some leeway given for his attachment. The story is really short and focuses on the first hour after his octopus dies. So, that lines up with what you were saying about a clinical setting. Luckily, I've structured the story in such a way that I don't have to address in much detail the type of research they're really doing--although, Philip, the octopus, dies before they're done with research or before a normal life span.

I'll read through a few of these threads and see if, after those, I have any gaps in my story and come back with questions.

Much thanks,

Letting me know the most helpful (even if not included in any part of the story) would be appreciated. We get requests from fiction authors once or twice a year so knowing which threads give them insight can make my posts shorter :biggrin2: and more helpful.

Don't forget to let us know when and where we can find the final copy!

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