Octopus Sneaks Away to Freedom in a Decent Impression of You Leaving Work Early

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Photo: Dave Fleetham/Design Pics/Corbis

The story of Inky the octopus is a good one, vaguely reminiscent of the second half of Pixar’s Finding Nemo: Recently, the cephalopod took advantage of a small gap in his enclosure at New Zealand’s National Aquarium, and wriggled his way out. From there, he worked his way across a wet floor before coming to a small drain, just six inches wide — Inky, let it be known, is about the size of a football. All the same, he stuffed himself into this drain, the other end of which leads to the Pacific Ocean — and this, presumably, is where Inky still is today.

He left an obvious trail behind him, so this is how we know his story. The breakout happened three months ago, but the New Zealand news site Stuff just picked up the story this week; soon, many other publications followed, most of the tellers of Inky’s tale marveling over the animal’s seemingly unique capability as an escape artist. “Who knew octopuses were such skilled escape artists?” asked The Week. Silly me — I thought everyone knew. Inky’s story is remarkable, but it is not at all unique. Consider, for example, the last octopus escape to go viral: At the Seattle Aquarium last March, the near getaway of an octopus named Ink (surely there are better names for these creatures) was recorded on video:

That octopus, aquarium staff later assured a local news station, was not actually trying to escape. But others have, and have succeeded, though not quite as neatly as Inky seems to have. As The Stranger reported in a fascinating 2009 feature on the Pacific octopus, a security guard once found a “quiet and nearly dead” octopus in a fleshy lump on the middle of the floor. Another time, a different octopus at the same aquarium successfully nudged a 60-pound weight off the top of its tank’s enclosure to try to get free; this octopus, by the way, weighed just 40 pounds. As that same story (which is so good; please go read it now) noted, keeping octopuses in their cages has been a problem plaguing aquariums since at least the 19th century:

The Octopus, like many other predaceous animals who seek their prey by night, habitually returns to skulk in the same retreat in the daytime. This practice enabled the resident Octopus of the Brighton Aquaa’ium [sic] to enjoy, for many weeks, the run of all the neighbouring tanks by night undetected, for, like the celebrated robber Peace, he was always to be found at home in the morning. But the rate at which he thinned the young Lump-fishes in an adjoining tank led to give suspicion, and after too hearty a meal one evening he imprudently stayed out all night, and was caught red-handed, gorged to distention, next morning, in the Lump-fishes’ abode.

Among their many talents, octopuses (and it’s octopuses, not octopi) are able to make their malleable bodies fit through impossibly small spaces. As long as their beaks can fit, as a spokesperson for the New Zealand National Aquarium told Stuff, they’ll figure out how to squish the rest of themselves through. Take this guy:

And if they really can’t escape from their enclosures, octopuses have other ways of acting out. Some unhappy creatures spray saltwater at their handlers, The Stranger reported, sometimes destroying expensive technical equipment in the process. And this in itself is kind of incredible if you think about it: How would an octopus know that saltwater — which to them is as indespensible yet unremarkable as air is to us — would be an annoyance to humans?

In a way, the history of human understanding of this creature is a great way to understand the problem with anthropocentrism — that is, defining other creatures by a human yardstick. Aristotle, for example, once called the octopus a “stupid creature,” for its tendency to “approach a man’s hand if it be lowered in the water.” But it’s now of course becoming ever more clear that octopuses are incredibly smart — if not, perhaps, in exactly the way that humans are smart. When is the last time you escaped from captivity via a six-inch pipe? I thought so.