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The “Finger”-Painting Octopus

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Animal Updates | Invertebrates | Arts | Enrichment

Tuesday, October 08, 2013


Part 1

Many of you have seen the seals and sea lions painting as an enrichment activity. Some zoos and aquariums even have elephants, giraffes and rhinos paint. If these smart mammals can do it, why can’t our octopus, the smartest invertebrate at the Aquarium? We decided to give our giant Pacific octopus, Gunda, the chance to try.

Recently, a few other institutions have introduced enrichments that let their octopuses paint indirectly, manipulating a toy below water to put paint on paper above water. The aquarist in charge of our giant Pacific octopus decided we should try something new and unique, something that allowed the octopus to paint directly. I was given the opportunity to build an enrichment item to allow Gunda, the Aquarium’s giant Pacific octopus, to finger paint… or rather, suction-cup paint.

Building a new enrichment item for an animal requires some research and submitting a proposal. It’s very important than any materials used are safe for the animal and approved by their caretaker. This is particularly important for me, since I was dealing with paint and a delicately skinned octopus. Also, unlike the terrestrial painting activities of the sea lions, the octopus would be painting, at least partially, underwater. After thorough investigation, I proposed a water-tight box with a flexible panel that would allow Gunda to directly manipulate the paint on the canvas without getting any paint on her arms or suckers. It would be a fun and safe mental stimulation for Gunda with awesome octopus paintings to show for it!

After approval, I built her enrichment box with care and was ready to introduce the box to Gunda. I knew full well that the first introduction of the enrichment object was definitely a test run. Sometimes animals are uninspired by their enrichment “toys” and couldn’t care less that this new object is there just for them. I was prepared for the possibility that the temperamental octopus would want nothing to do with my contraption. I wasn’t really prepared for what actually did happen. Good thing it was just a “test.”

Before introducing the box to Gunda for the first time, her aquarist and I added a little bit of sardine juice to the outside of the box to entice Gunda to explore and spark her curiosity. It turns out this wasn’t really necessary. Her curiosity and cleverness definitely got the best of us. Upon introduction, Gunda almost immediately showed interest in the box, running her arms along it. She explored her new toy, both for its curious shape and feel and for the delicious flavor of sardine rubbed on the front.

Her aquarist and I watched her with curiosity (and I with a sense of relief) as she manipulated the box. She even seemed interested in the texture of the squishy paint beneath the flexible panel. I looked down to see what shapes were forming from her painting when I noticed there was water in my water tight box! How did that happen? I knew I had closed and secured the latches to the box…That clever octopus had used her lower arms, under the cover of her body where we couldn’t see, to tug at and open the tightly secured latches to the box while she explored and painted!

We took the box away from her to repair and reset with new canvas and paint for the next round of painting.

Not wanting to let the octopus outsmart me again, I secured the latches, taped them over with duct tape. And I made sure, when introducing the box to Gunda the second time, to keep hold of the box so that I could always see where the latches were. There was to be no mischievous unlocking going on out of my view a second time.

Unfortunately, Gunda did not seem pleased to have to share her toy with me. She pulled strongly to take the box—her toy—away from me to manipulate it on her own. I held firm, determined to keep the latches securely where I could see that they were unopened. She tugged again. I held on; she could manipulate, explore and touch just fine with one of my hands on the box. Gunda put the large suction cups of several of her arms right over the flexible painting panel. I was so pleased that she was painting and hopeful that we’d see some wonderfully well-defined large suction cup marks in the paint when she was done! And then she pulled. Hard. So hard she ripped the flexible panel right out of the box. The painting was drenched and my enrichment project was broken.

We laughed and sighed and took the box away from her to repair, but not reset this time.

My test run was successful… even if I was leaving with a broken enrichment project. Gunda seemed to have a blast with her new toy. She was definitely enriched and mentally stimulated. She showed us just how clever an octopus can be, opening latches and outsmarting us. And I learned some valuable lessons on how to “octopus-proof” something, when to let an octopus win, and how to get a better painting out of Gunda. I was ready to repair (and rethink) the enrichment box, so that it would be able to withstand the intellect and will of the giant Pacific Octopus, and I’m pretty sure Gunda ready to get her enrichment “toy” back as soon as possible.

Tune in next week for part 2 of Gunda’s story!

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