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12 May 2021updated 03 Aug 2021 12:27pm

Watching Netflix’s My Octopus Teacher, I wonder why we like to imagine animals are our friends

Must we see something of ourselves in animals – read our emotions into their behaviour, attribute to them a level of human-like intelligence – to value them?

By Pippa Bailey

The boundaries between her and I seem to dissolve, just the pure magnificence of her” – so says a man of the octopus sitting on his chest. “All I could do at the time was just think of her.” Many men could do worse than appropriate these words for their human partners.

Craig Foster, the film-maker who plays the part of the student in the beautifully made My Octopus Teacher, which this year won the Oscar for best documentary feature, is searching for a cure for burnout in the cold waters of False Bay, South Africa. In a kelp forest there he finds a young octopus, and decides to free-dive every day of her short life to visit her. “I remember that day when it all started…” Foster intones, as though it’s the start of a romcom; the music swells when she reaches for his hand.

There is no doubt that the octopus is an incredible creature. It is a delight to watch it hide itself in a sheet of algae, or approach the camera holding up a shell as a shield, or escape a shark in the safest place it can find – the shark’s back. But Foster’s assertion that humans and octopuses are “very similar in a lot of ways” is absurd: octopuses are believed to have been the first intelligent life on the planet, evolving some 230 million years before mammals, and three-fifths of their neurons reside in their arms.

Foster imagines the octopus as being like “a human friend”, waving to say, “Hi, I’m excited to see you”; he can feel her trust for him, he says, her invitation into her world. He wonders what she’s thinking, what she dreams about. In places, their “relationship” feels fetishised, held up as spiritual and sacred. When the octopus loses an arm to a pyjama shark, Foster feels “vulnerable, as if somehow what happened to her had happened to me”, as if he is psychologically “going through a type of dismembering”. As her limb grows back he feels himself healing, too, their “lives mirroring each other”.

[see also: Netflix’s Tiger King is absurd, voyeuristic television]

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There are, to my mind, two extremes in documentaries about animals: those that present the animal kingdom as separate from people, their only human presence David Attenborough’s narration (other presenters are available); and those, such as Tiger King or the masterful Blackfish, that document an overly close relationship between humans and animals: obsessive, intrusive. My Octopus Teacher doesn’t go that far, but still I found the lack of distance uncomfortable.

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Must we see something of ourselves in animals – read our emotions and characteristics into their behaviour, attribute to them a level of human-like intelligence – to value them? Foster clearly learns from observing the octopus, but is she actively teaching him? Such set-ups often tell us more about the human instincts of the people making a film than they do about animals. Listening to Foster, I am reminded of the words of nature writer Richard Mabey, interviewed in the New Statesman this year: “In much modern nature writing there is a tendency to view the natural world as a kind of magic globe in which to view oneself.”

Animals are not there for us, to be treated as commodities or companions as we see fit; to be reduced to their usefulness to us. Nature does not exist to alleviate our restless emptiness, much as it may do so. I wonder whether the appeal of watching a man bond with an octopus is that it allows us to imagine, for a moment, that the relationship our species has with the wild is knowing, reciprocal, not destructive and exploitative.

Werner Herzog’s 2005 film Grizzly Man follows another man for whom a close relationship with wild animals was a salvation of sorts. Timothy Treadwell spent his summers living among the grizzly bears of Alaska over 13 years, and was eventually killed by one. Watching Foster’s film, I found myself longing for Herzog’s detached narration. After nearly two hours of watching Treadwell proclaim his love for the grizzlies, Herzog says: “What haunts me is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature… But for Timothy Treadwell, this bear was a friend, a saviour.”

Must we view an octopus as a friend, a saviour, a teacher? Couldn’t we simply settle for not eating them? 

[see also: The man who saw everything]

This article appears in the 12 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Without total change Labour will die