A Call to Action for the Intelligent Beings of the Depths of the Ocean

Commentary by Jennifer Mishler, Staff Writer/Editor, Sea Shepherd USA

The Giant Pacific is the largest species of octopus in the world and are not well suited for aquariumsThe Giant Pacific is the largest species of octopus in the world and are not well suited for aquariums
Photo credit: Jennifer Mishler / Sea Shepherd
In September, I went to the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C. to observe and document the exhibits and conditions in which the animals are living. One animal death after another, the zoo has claimed limited funding, among other attempts at justifications. They have since backtracked, saying that despite funding issues, they take proper care of the animals.

As I went through the invertebrates exhibit, I was disheartened to see the small tank housing a Giant Pacific octopus named Pandora. She was at the top of the tank, clinging to the back wall of her small world, watching as I stood there. When I look into the eyes of an octopus, I can see their remarkable intelligence, and can’t help but wonder what they make of me when they look back.

The Giant Pacific is the largest species of octopus in the world, sometimes weighing hundreds of pounds. Though some live to old age in captivity, they are not well suited for aquariums as they are nocturnal, live in the depths of the ocean and in the hidden darkness of caves. Octopuses are intelligent, complex beings who explore their natural ocean environment, and some will curiously investigate divers whom they encounter. Octopuses have even been known to cleverly get out of their tanks when confined in aquariums. Why are we subjecting them to a fate of imprisonment — one that they are clearly trying to escape?

While the photo does not show Pandora’s entire tank, it does give an idea of her size and what little ability she had to move around, hide from the crowds and light. The room was dimmed, though, and the photo was taken without flash, so it has been edited so that you are better able to see. This tank may have provided more room when the octopus arrived at the zoo, but it was not big enough for her at her full-grown size — including an arm span of more than seven feet long! The zoo has had octopuses prior to Pandora’s arrival in 2011, as well. I can only imagine what life must be like day in and day out in this barren tank.

The National Zoo announced last week that Pandora has died. She was five years old. This age is old for the Giant Pacific octopus, which lives an average of 3-5 years in the wild. The zoo was happy to report that Pandora died at an old age, but I can only think of how she lived confined to this tiny tank for two years of her five short years of life and wonder where she came from before that. What sort of quality of life did she really have?

When I heard of her death, I was sad that she was gone, but relieved that such an intelligent, amazing animal is no longer confined to the four walls of that tank. I hoped against hope that the National Zoo would not replace her, but the zoo has already announced plans to bring a new octopus to the exhibit. While the zoo has stated that they plan to restore the tank, I cannot imagine it will be adequate for a “giant.” The Giant Pacific octopus should be free in the depths of its ocean home, not treated as a decoration in a small tank. Though I could not free Pandora while she was alive, I promised that I will speak for her and try to make sure that the tank that once confined her remains empty. If the National Zoo is truly dedicated to education and protection for the Giant Pacific octopus, the National Zoo and organizations like it should work to protect them in the wild — not confine them to an inadequate tank on display for their short lives. Pandora should be the last octopus to suffer a sad life at the National Zoo. Please join Sea Shepherd in making that happen — for Pandora, and others like her.

CALL TO ACTION: There are no protections for invertebrates such as the Giant Pacific octopus in captivity, so the only thing that will stop the National Zoo from confining another octopus to this tiny tank is public pressure. Please join us in asking the Smithsonian National Zoo not to replace Pandora with another octopus.

Contact Information:

Mailing Address:

Friends of the National Zoo
P.O. Box 37012 MRC 5516
Washington, DC 20013-7012

Phone: (202) 633-4888

Email Contact Form

Smithsonian's National Zoo on Facebook

Smithsonian's National Zoo on Twitter

Executive Director Robert J. Lamb:
Phone: (202) 633-4379
Executive Office Fax: (202) 673-4738

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