Terms of (Interspecies) Endearment

Diver Craig Foster becomes fascinated with an octopus, and visits her for hundreds of days in a row, in "My Octopus Teacher."

Among my childhood friend’s many family pets one day appeared a little lamb, whom they diapered, bottle-fed, cuddled, and named Hannah. It didn’t seem so odd (for that family) and I didn’t ask questions – until the day I came over and asked where she was. “The freezer”, mom replied, with a nonchalance that my categorically rigid brain would not forget.

I was disturbed, but my friend tried to convince me that there was nothing wrong with the eating of Hannah. They’d lived on a farm where they raised lambs for consumption. But she was the runt of the litter and wasn’t getting fed by mom, so they took her in. It’s not like she knew what was coming anyway. And plus, wouldn’t you rather the chicken you eat be raised with love, even if it’s by humans, and killed with dignity? They’d even thanked Hannah and shared fond memories of their time together before digging in. I ended up not just accepting this logic, but thinking that this family had transcended some sentimental glitch in humanity that allowed for maximum utility in this crazy animal-eating, animal-befriending world.

But my limits were met with the new highly praised, weirdly erotic Netflix nature documentary called My Octopus Teacher, aka My Human Stalker. In it, a man films his exploits with an octopus he has fallen in love with, which involve following her around for weeks – forcing her to move habitats to get away – before she realizes that he isn’t a threat and touches him a few times (or in his words “the boundaries between her and I seemed to dissolve” ). The man in his incessant, overly sentimental narration seems to think that this octopus is special because of their relationship, which he would know is not the case if he bothered to learn anything about the species at all.

At the film’s emotional climax, the man sits back and films his octopus friend/teacher/whatever get dismembered by a tiny shark that he could have easily swatted away, with the excuse of not wanting to intervene with the course of nature, as if we had not been watching him this whole time do exactly that; encouraging the octopus to come out of his den, shaking her hand, breaking a clam shell for her to feed. It’s only when his “friend” needs his help that he took the money shot instead – more than once.

I have two main philosophically relevant grievances about this “documentary”. First is the abuse of language. No Craig, you were not friends with the octopus. That’s not what friendship is. You stalked her, and she eventually felt safe enough to be curious. Also, to be friends would require you do whatever is in your power to save your friend. If it were any more obvious that this was a vanity project disguised as beautiful story of interspecies friendship, it’s when you refused to act.

Second is the hypocrisy of why he refused to act – the not wanting to interfere with nature’s course bit. Well Craig, by inserting yourself in the octopus’ life like you have, her world is altered. She becomes more vulnerable by trusting you. She puts herself out there. You even admitted the shark that attacked her probably smelled you from afar. And so you have become part of the ecosystem, Craig, “part of the natural world, not just a visitor” (the very thing you say she taught you). For this reason alone you are obligated to try to save her, especially if you think you are friends.

Are these grievances valid? Was it okay to eat Hannah? Discuss!

One thought on “Terms of (Interspecies) Endearment

  1. Dressing the animal in clothing is weird. Animals to be eaten should be treated with respect and not used as toys. The programme you mention is also weird. But maybe I should become a thourougoing Vegan.


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