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The “Finger”-Painting Octopus

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Animal Updates | Invertebrates | Arts | Enrichment | Volunteering

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


Part 2

Did you miss Part 1 last week? Click here to catch up!

Tasked with building an enrichment object that would allow our giant Pacific octopus, Gunda to paint, I was outwitted and out-willed by the octopus on my first attempts. I had built a water-tight box with a flexible panel that would allow Gunda to directly manipulate the paint on the canvas with her suckers without ever touching the paint. However, on her first two interactions with the painting box, she sneakily unlatched the lid and later pulled out the front panel, flooding the box with water!

A week after my first trials with Gunda, it was time to try again. Maybe this time I would get a painting. With my first enrichment project broken, I brought in my back-up plan, a water tight pouch. We already knew Gunda was interested in the enrichment box: it had successfully sparked her curiosity and got her thinking, albeit mischievously. Now we had to see if she would be as interested in the pouch with its different texture and feel (and if she could produce a painting with it). We took the water tight pouch and placed the canvas and paint inside. Then we added some sardine juice to the outside, just as we did when introducing the box, to make it more appealing.

Gunda liked the pouch. She touched it, she pulled at it gingerly with her suckers. She pushed at it lightly, she squeezed it. Then she wrapped her arms around it and yanked it towards her as though saying “MINE.” When we finally went to take the pouch to retrieve the painting, she shot a stream of water over the side of her tank at us and darted away, pouch in arms, in protest! She gave it back only when she was good and ready.

The enrichment pouch was proving to be far more durable than (while just as stimulating as) the enrichment box. However, Gunda’s 8 arms all focusing on keeping her new “toy” was proving to be too much for me and her aquarist. We decided to give her two things to do at once. While Gunda manipulated the pouch underwater with a few of her arms, we held the no-longer-water-tight box above the surface of the water for her to manipulate with her unoccupied arms. We also noticed, when she would wrap her arms around the pouch, she would manipulate and paint on both sides at once. The cliché octopus, multitasking with its multiple arms, was real! At one point during her enrichment session, Gunda was working on 3 paintings at once!

Gunda has been very curious and eager to play and paint. She has a lot of fun exploring her enrichment “toys” and the paint through the panel and pouch. And the added flavor of sardine certainly doesn’t hurt. She’s very methodical and thorough in her investigations: at first tenderly touching the paint trough the barrier and then engulfing the enrichment objects in her arms to feel it and manipulate them from all sides. As Gunda paints, she mushes and smears the paint around, etching lines and grooves, streaking color and leaving her suction cup prints here and there on the canvas.

So far, Gunda, the giant Pacific octopus, has produced 21 paintings in her unique method. One of her paintings will be up for auction at the upcoming Sea Fare. If you’re able to make it to this year’s Sea Fare, be sure to check out Gunda’s artwork. You can bid to own a painting by the first and (as of today) only “finger”-painting octopus!

The “Finger”-Painting Octopus
A painting, done as an enrichment activity, by Gunda the giant Pacific octopus  | Dominique Richardson
The “Finger”-Painting Octopus
Another painting, done as an enrichment activity, by Gunda the giant Pacific octopus.  | Dominique Richardson

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