Sarah Johnson, 13, looks at Pandora. (M. McClain / Post)
Zoos have historically been museums of animals, aimed at building a collection of the most rare and exotic species. But for about the past 30 years, zoos have radically overhauled their philosophies and policies, transforming how their animals live and how they are seen by the public. (Brad Horn/The Washington Post)
The giant Pacific octopus at the National Zoo was spending time, as she occasionally does, draped in a dim corner of her tank like a wad of dishrags. The octopus, Pandora, has tentacles several feet long and is the size of a Thanksgiving turkey, and she often hangs out at the front of her tank, unscrolling around the glass. But she is an expert at camouflage, and against the rocks at the rear she can be only faintly visible. It was 3 o’clock on a recent afternoon, her feeding time, and a crowd was straining for a glimpse of her. “Where’s the octopus?” a boy asked, pressing his brow against the tank, his eyes a few inches from hers. Suddenly, a zoo volunteer rose above the back of the tank, backlit, holding a long feeding stick, and lowered a piece of shrimp into the water. In a flash, Pandora shot from her perch and flung herself upon the shrimp; she flushed a bright red, inflated and rippling in the water, like a predatory prom dress. From the rear of the crowd, a keeper deftly narrated the action: “That’s the jet hop, the ballooning behavior right there. You see those very subtle color changes, the texture change — they can voluntarily change the color and texture of their skin. …” a monologue drowned out at intervals by the gasps of the crowd.
Pandora is, in many ways, what the zoo considers a good exhibit animal. In the vast category of invertebrates — the majority of which are tiny, creepy or immobile — she is intelligent and visually arresting, even when just noodling around. A solitary cave-dweller by nature, she can live without too much trouble in a space the size of a hot tub, and, unusual for an octopus, prefers the display side of her tank. Yet as a wild animal, she has habits that subvert the desires of her adoring public — she camouflages against rocks, and tends to be more active at night. And she has exhibited behavior in captivity that is potentially damaging to her, as when she slams into the tank wall.