What exactly do we want animals to be?

Photo: AP
Photo: AP


We like other species to show that their lives are more than just about eating and reproduction

Documentary’ is an expletive. To many of us, it has come to mean a dreary film, and of late, a piece of sanctimonious propaganda issued by the empathy industry. So there has to be a more reverential way of classifying My Octopus Teacher, a film that I kept hearing about even before it was shortlisted for an Oscar in the ‘Best Documentary Feature’ category. Maybe we should call all unearthing of facts about us ‘anthropology’. And that is what I want to call My Octopus Teacher—a beautiful work of anthropology. But then, as you will see, it is an unflattering description of the film, which thinks of itself largely as the biography of a feral common octopus. But in reality the film is about its biographers—us. It is always about us. Everything we see, especially in animals, is all about us. We are full of ourselves. That is the human condition.

In My Octopus Teacher, an unhappy man named Craig Foster, whose unhappiness we don’t fully understand, finds peace in a kelp forest on the edge of the Atlantic, in South Africa. One day, in the shallow marine wild, where he appears to fly among spectacular seaweeds and animals, he finds a common octopus. At first the “liquid animal" is wary. But, after Foster returns to its den everyday, they seem to become friends. He dives without a heavy oxygen tank, and he is never in a wet suit, which means he never appears like a shark to the mollusc. A professional filmmaker, and a competent diver who has the capacity to hold his breath for several minutes, Foster captured his experiences on camera for over a year.

As the lifespan of a common octopus is about a year, Foster observed it everyday for “80% of its life".

In the course of their acquaintance, the octopus rides on him, and at times extends a tentacle to touch him, which lends a strong visual sense of the expression ‘reaching out’. She lets him see her the way humans have probably never seen an octopus. She appears to walk on two tentacles. She camouflages by heaping shells over herself. In an extraordinary scene, when a pyjama shark attacks her, she finds the safest spot—on the back of the shark. The audience erupts in ‘oohs’ as though they have witnessed a Roger Federer backhand from an impossible angle.

In Foster’s attempt to make the octopus more comprehensible to us, he uses the word “intelligent" often.

But was the Octopus everything that Foster saw in her? Are animals everything that we see in them?

We want animals to demonstrate that their lives are more than just about copulating and eating and caring for their young, even though many humans may not be able to claim as much. We love it when we find evidence of an animal showing emotion, or just playing, or reasoning.

There is a video of a stray cow in Mumbai, which joins a group of boys playing football, and starts kicking the ball around. It first chases the ball, and after capturing it appears reluctant to lose it. We want to believe that it was playing with the boys, and that there is more to its life than chewing cud. We know of robber gangs that use monkeys to steal from tourists in return for food; and we delight in the fact that the monkeys now know what kind of stolen goods fetch more food. In My Octopus Teacher, there is a moment when the octopus drives a school of fish to and fro, an act that Foster seems keen to believe is not hunting, but playing. Another time, Foster suggests that the Octopus has used him as a tool in her hunting.

We don’t know actually what was going on inside the octopus’s head, and arms, which have millions of neurons. So often when humans see human qualities in animal behaviour, it is more self-absorption than science. We admire, for instance, the monogamy of the albatross, which has turned out to be not as monogamous as earlier thought. Millions believe in the myth of the dolphin’s therapeutic powers, that swimming with them is beneficial for children with physical disabilities and even autism and attention deficiency. Every time there is a natural calamity, there is talk of how “cleverly" animals escape. In the 2004 tsunami, some people like to say, very few wild animals perished. But then, humans count their dead, unlike what we know of wild animals, and that may be why they seem to get away. Even Jane Goodall gave questionable anthropogenic attributes to chimpanzees. In fact, a part of Goodall’s fame surely rests of how much she made chimpanzees recognizable to us.

But then, maybe we have got even dogs wrong. What if, as a forgotten person once said, dogs lick you because they know there is a bone inside? Alright, alright, endearing pets aside, maybe we get animals wrong because we are a megalomaniac species that sees ourselves in everything. Even in machines, the very basis of the hysteria around computers becoming self-aware. We search for alien life by looking for planets with water and carbon, and which are as distant from their stars as we from our Sun. Actually, sometimes when I get to hear some conjecture of alien life, I feel we are searching for Americans in other solar systems. Clearly, modern humans feel lonely in the universe; they want other sort of humans, who are different in an exotic way but still not so quaint that they will be incomprehensible.

Maybe all animals see themselves in every other animal. Maybe the octopus got comfortable with Foster because she thought he was just some lame mollusc, who had four tentacles missing.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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