We are susceptible to stories that spotlight animal intelligence, and challenge our assumptions about the unique capacities of humans. Cleverness and intelligence can be difficult to parse, so the details of the story matters. This one is better than most such stories for reasons we cannot quite explain:
Earlier this month, under the cover of night, an octopus named Inky hauled his basketball-sized body out of the tank he shared with a companion at the National Aquarium of New Zealand, heaved himself across the floor, and squeezed his gelatinous mantle into a narrow drain leading to the Pacific Ocean. It was an escape story fit for a Pixar film, and the Internet responded with corresponding glee. One Twitter user hailed Inky as “the world’s greatest hero,” while another warned that “we’re about to be slaves to our new great leader, #Inky.” Comparisons to El Chapo and “The Shawshank Redemption” were made. At Vice’s Motherboard, one writer even created a work of Inky fan fiction, imagining the cephalopod free but heartbroken at being separated from his tank mate, Blotchy. “He felt the joy of a mollusc reborn,” the story goes, imagining the moment when Blotchy escapes to meet Inky in the ocean. “They would live out their days in briny bliss, free from the tank that bound them!”
Part of the fun of the Inky story, like that of the Pizza Rat or the escaping llama duo before him, is indulging in a bit of knowing anthropomorphizing: animals, they’re just like us! In the case of octopuses, this pleasure is especially pronounced, because the creatures’ great intelligence comes packaged in bodies so vastly different from our own. How is it that an eight-tentacled sea alien can open jars and recognize faces? Octopuses have been observed moving around the ocean floor carrying cracked coconut shells, which they close around themselves as portable armor. They exhibit sophisticated play behavior, blowing objects around in the water or even fiddling with Legos.
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