I recently saw the trending documentary, “My Octopus Teacher,” which has in fact stuck to me a bit like a tentacle. I’ll not spoil it for those who might like to see it, but it left me wondering about the attachment capabilities of its squiggly supporting actor. Octopuses live brief, solitary lives so to see one become so familiar with its human visitor that it returns greetings, seeks physical contact and appears to enjoy making a friend leaves one pondering the never quite answered question of how and how much our animal companions on this planet share emotional bonds with us. The star cephalopod is all the more compelling when the scientists weigh in and inform us that she has a remarkably complex nervous system compared to her underwater peers or in the animal kingdom in general.
As the owner of a thirteen-year-old Dumerils boa constrictor named Marie Laveau, the nature of animal attachments to their human companions is on my mind more regularly than for most. The question I am most often asked is, “Does she love you back?” My inquirers are generally baiting me in friendly fashion to see if I’ll anthropomorphize her into an empathic companion. My response, practiced now after years of thinking and answering, is that Marie Laveau understands routine and confident handling. Older now and less frisky than she used to be, she still scrambles, flees and shows alarm if uncarefully held. She does learn, of that I have evidence. Dumerils Boas by nature hide in their forest substrate and wait for prey to wander by; after many years of dropping thawed rats from above she looks up when it’s time to eat. For Marie Laveau, food falls from the sky.
Our marine biologist learned something new about companionship from his Octopus friend, and Marie Laveau has taught me lessons as well. Her personality is best described as mindful, in the buddhist sense, quite a compliment for an animal that arguably has no mind. She lives entirely in the present; she has no regrets about the past nor anxiety about the future. She has aims and encounters obstacles but knows not of frustration or anger. She calmly probes for a path with her not so little brown nose, looking here and there for a way to get to where she wants to go (which is generally toward heat or shade). If no solution is available, she accepts her circumstances and continues her largely still, quiet life. Eating just two or three meals per month, she is patient, not waiting so much as simply being until the next rat falls from the sky. She can be lightning quick for such an imperturbable animal but she uses her skill sparingly, just to snatch a rat or strike when she perceives an acute threat. When done, she returns to her state of simply being. Perhaps I do anthropomorphize my tiny brained pet but it is for the good as she reminds me daily of a certain approach to living that I have not yet achieved for myself.