Save the planet! Save humanity! Befriend an octopus

Your friends are so good-looking!
Your friends are so good-looking!
Image: NOAA
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The 20th-century philosopher Martin Buber believed that humans often miss out on opportunities to make new friends—in the form of the flora and fauna that share our planet.

Buber said that people can engage in real dialogue with trees and creatures. He called these exchanges “I and thou” moments, in which we really see another living being and observe them seeing us. These conversations affirm our existence and reflect our humanity back at us. Unfortunately, according to Buber, humans mostly relate to other people and other creatures in “I and it” exchanges, looking upon animals, plants, and even each other as objects.

But researchers are increasingly trying to forge meaningful connections with animals like octopuses and elephants, learning to see the animals’ individuality deeply and recognize their consciousness. They believe this is the key to becoming better stewards of the planet—and in the process, getting in touch with our own inner wildness.

Meet Superstar the octopus

In the kelp forests of the ocean off the coast of South Africa lives an octopus called Superstar. She was named by naturalist Craig Foster, who met the octopus during his daily dives. Superstar became accustomed to him and even developed affection for the human, greeting Foster upon his arrival, allowing him into her den, and sharing her secrets, for example leading him to her secluded hunting spots. “I had the privilege of visiting this incredible animal for almost a year. It totally trusted me, lost all fear, it would take me on hunting expeditions and let me into its secret world,” Foster tells the BBC.

Foster describes their friendship in a new book called Sea Change—Primal Joy and the Art of Underwater Tracking. The book and an accompanying documentary are part of Foster’s effort to reconnect with the inherent wildness of humans in an environment where there are no people. In the kelp forests, Foster was able to meet Superstar on her own terms and become part of her underwater universe. “It is a great privilege to step into that world to learn—not like a mammal—but like a fellow spineless creature in her invertebrate world,” he says. “You realize, my goodness, her life is so detailed and crazily connected to everything around her.”

Foster credits Superstar with more than just revealing ocean secrets. She also helped Foster recover from depression. After he spent eight years trying to learn to track animals with the indigenous peoples of southern Africa, the San Bushmen, the naturalist grew even more despondent. He felt he couldn’t truly connect with nature.

Then Foster took to the water, where he met Superstar. He calls the octopus “an eight-legged, underwater magician” and contends that she helped him find hope and life again. Sea Change is “his personal story of recovery and renewal through rediscovering the power of deep nature and the true nature of humanity.”

By showing how Superstar and her neighbors live, Foster hopes that he can inspire others to cultivate a deeper appreciation of nature. Just as Superstar is connected to everything around her, we are tied to the animals that surround us, whether or not we see them. Or, as the Sea Change website explains, “We have lost the connection with nature and ourselves…We believe that when you open your heart to nature, its mysteries unfold and your own true nature reveals itself. We are born to be wild.”

Soul to soul

Foster is not alone in claiming friendship with an octopus or benefitting from this kind of experience. The writer and naturalist Sy Montgomery told Quartz in 2017 that she’s “had the great privilege of knowing several octopuses well enough to consider them close friends.” In her 2015 book, The Soul of an Octopusshe describes these relationships, including her initial encounter with a creature named Athena:

Athena’s suction is gentle, though insistent. It pulls me like an alien’s kiss. Her melon-sized head bobs to the surface, and her left eye—octopuses have a dominant eye, as people have dominant hands—swivels in its socket to meet mine. Her black pupil is a fat hyphen in a pearly globe. Its expression reminds me of the look in the eyes of paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses—serene, all-knowing, heavy with wisdom stretching back beyond time.

This was an I-thou moment of the kind Buber described. Montgomery saw Athena see her, and the naturalist saw the otherworldly creature for who she was, too. Such exchanges not only affirm our humanity, they inspire deeper interest in the animals who share our planet. That may be the key to saving some creatures from extinction.

Befriending elephants

The human population is exploding and our growth encroaches on animal territories, creating conflicts between people and creatures. Joshua Plotnik, an assistant professor of psychology at Hunter College in New York City, says that understanding the way animals think may help mitigate such conflicts.

Plotnik, an expert on elephant cognition and behavior, believes that elephants in South Asia may be angry at people. He explains in a recent interview in Yale Environment 360 that as humans expand their territory for farming, some elephants are retaliating. While some eat farmers’ crops on the way to local watering holes, there are other elephants who simply destroy the farms without eating any food. Plotnik posits that these could be acts of revenge. “So that might be because the intensity of that conflict is so high that the elephants are just angry, and they are intelligent enough animals that I would not be surprised if they were retaliating against people,” he says.

While there is no hard, empirical evidence for this yet, the researcher says that the variety of conflicts between humans and elephants in South Asia makes revenge “a scary possibility.” He proposes that people take a new approach to understanding the huge intelligent animals with whom they share land. This would begin with observing their behavior more closely and creating experiments that examine elephant cognition using the sense elephants most rely on—their sense of smell.

“One big problem in the field of animal cognition is that experiments are designed largely for visual species, like humans, nonhuman primates like chimps or monkeys, and birds. These species are easier for scientists to access in labs,” Plotnik says.

When it comes to elephants, there are many challenges to understanding them—most notably their size, but also our human limitations. We people don’t think like them. We’re not guided by our olfactory sense as much as we rely on vision. To save the world’s dwindling elephant populations, preserve farms, and halt the animals’ conflicts with humans, people will need to really get inside the elephant mind—in other words, investing time and energy in getting to know elephants, just as we would a friend.

Perhaps, then, the “I and thou” moment with elephants will involve not seeing them so much as smelling them. “[Y]ou have to understand the animal that you are trying to protect, if you are going to be successful in conserving it,” Plotnik argues. “A lot of times these conservation strategies are not successful because they fail to recognize the wildlife’s perspective.”