"It’s so hard to say if octopuses are ‘intelligent,’ " says aquarist Eve Poynter, leader of the octopus training team, "because animals that learn the way we learn appear smart to us.
"A lot of things that we find intelligent, our octopus, Odie, is able to do because of his dexterity," she continues. "A lot of this is natural behavior. Octopuses hunt a lot of prey that can be difficult to find and capture. What he does in training sessions is natural for him and necessary in the wild."
And to keep Odie happily occupied, enrichment—the play or skills part of training sessions—is essential. "We know cephalopods need a lot of enrichment to stay happy and healthy," Eve says.
But unlike the dolphins, beluga whales, or other animals that Shedd guests might associate with training, an octopus is also reclusive, skittish, nocturnal and reliant on touch and other nonvisual senses. It is differently dexterous, with eight strong, suckered arms that, unencumbered by rigid bones, can just about go anywhere and do anything.
The octopus training program represents the combined expertise of Shedd’s husbandry and training divisions.
Lisa Takaki, director of Shedd’s marine mammal department, has been training dolphins and whales since 1982, and working with Shedd’s marine mammals since 1989. She oversees the aquarium’s animal training programs and works with the octopus team twice a month.
"The animals in the aquarium’s galleries are not my specialty, but animal behavior is," she says. "I worked closely with and depended upon the aquarists as we developed the different training programs. In Odie’s case, senior aquarist Ernie Sawyer taught me what’s different about this animal, its natural history, habits and needs."
For starters, she says, Ernie suggested positioning a black patio umbrella over the habitat during sessions because the nocturnal octopus was not comfortable coming up to the bright daylight to interact with trainers. Full shade solved the problem.
"Then we just worked on earning Odie’s trust," Lisa continues. "Initially it’s simply teaching this animal not to be afraid of us, teaching him that we are where his food comes from."
Ernie gave her a feeding schedule spelling out how much food the octopus should receive how many times a week, based on his size and growth rate. During Odie’s first weeks at Shedd in early 2009, Lisa and members of the octopus team used a feeding stick—a long pole with food at the end—to get the octopus comfortable with a routine and interacting with them. "It was a very quick session. Two minutes. We’d walk in, put the stick in, and say ’bye."
Ernie also set safety rules: The octopus—all of him—had to stay inside the habitat. "It was like teaching him manners," Lisa says. "If he put an arm outside the habitat, we’d put it back in. We do let him hold our fingers, but we don’t let him pull our hands or arms into his mantle. He learned not to be too grabby or we’d stop the interaction, and that we’d reinforce for calm behavior and just hanging out."
The impetus for the training program came from a volunteer who had worked with octopuses at the Bermuda Aquarium. She received permission from Ernie to do a little enrichment and asked Lisa for additional help. Odie is the third giant Pacific octopus to go through the program.
"Every octopus has been very different," Lisa says. One readily learned to swim into a plastic basket to be weighed while another was so timid that getting her to eat during a session was a triumph. Odie, on the other hand, is comfortable with eight team members, whom he can distinguish among by their slight personal variations in the consistent training routine. He even shyly greeted a stranger during a training session.
The gradual approach of making every interaction positive, fun and interesting paid off a few months ago when one of the panels over the octopus habitat broke. (Odie didn’t do it.) Lisa recalls, "We had three workmen climbing over the habitat, moving the panel around, making noise, and Odie just stayed in one corner and played with me for an hour. I was amazed. Until that day I had no idea how comfortable he truly had become with us.
"So it’s interesting to see the octopuses’ different personalities," Lisa says. "I love it. And I’m so glad Ernie let us have the team."
If there is a down side, she says, "It’s that the life span is short, so you feel like you’re starting over every few years." We don’t know how old Odie was when he arrived in February 2009, but giant Pacific octopuses live three to five years.
One training session with Odie still makes Lisa laugh. "When I started the session, Odie had a whiffle ball at the surface. I pulled it out and put it on the edge of the habitat to give him something different at the end. Odie came up to station, ate and interacted calmly. It was a good session. At the end, I gave him his ice-block toy, and he slipped down in the water. Then an arm shot up and grabbed the ball, too!"
—Karen Furnweger, web editor