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Matthew Rozsa

Is octopus experimentation ethical?

The 2021 film "My Octopus Teacher" swept the world with its touching story of a South African man who befriends a wild octopus while free diving in a kelp forest. Millions of filmgoers were charmed and moved by the wild octopus' adventures and antics — yet that wild octopus was a lucky one. According to Dr. Barbara J. King, professor emerita of anthropology at the College of William & Mary and author of "How Animals Grieve" (and other books on animals), nearly two dozen blue-lined octopuses living off Australia's Stradbroke Island suffered a much grimmer fate.

She described "this more recent experiment in which 21 wild octopuses going about their daily lives were collected from their homes in coastal waters and in the laboratory killed so their brains could be studied," King told Salon by email. "These octopuses pay the ultimate price – they are killed— because researchers are curious to know about comparative brain anatomy vis-à-vis habitat."

Although the researchers wrote that they had obtained an animal ethics permit, King scoffed at the notion that such a permit could be justified in this situation.

"Justifying this cost (death of 21 animals) by saying that an 'animal ethics permit' was obtained in no way alters my opinion that this is unethical and immoral research: what right do we have to end the life of 21 octopuses for this experiment?" King argued. "Would we do this to 21 chimpanzees?"

King is not the only scientist comparing octopuses to chimpanzees. Both animals have displayed extreme intelligence, so much so that last month the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) rocked the science world with an arguably overdue announcement: Cephalopods like octopuses and squids could receive the same protections in laboratory settings currently given to mice and monkeys. The agency has put out a request for information, seeking more information from the scientific community on how to proceed, while noting that "Many nations have also adopted regulatory requirements for cephalopod welfare in research, including the members of the European Union, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Norway, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand."

As the NIH Office of Extramural Research explained to Salon, "The Request for Information seeks input at this time on proposed guidance for use of laboratory cephalopods in research, research training, experimentation or biological testing, or for related purposes," with a deadline of Dec. 23, 2023.

These proposed regulations won't make experiments with octopuses impossible. Dr. Robyn Crook, an associate professor of biology at San Francisco State University, argues that this can be ethically done — but certain strict criteria have to be met.

In addition to having a experiment that is "well designed, appropriately powered and conducted by properly trained personnel," Crook insisted that these experiments must allow their animals to engage in normal behaviors, even though these can be highly species-specific for cephalopods. "Any possible pain, distress or lasting harm is minimized or eliminated by provision of validated analgesic drugs or anesthesia, restraint that is absolutely minimized to the degree strictly necessary for the experiment, and that animals are proactively monitored and euthanized, if necessary, to prevent further suffering," Crook added, concluding that the experiments must have an intrinsic scientific value that is evaluated by an impartial third party.

"These are, of course, the sorts of regulations that apply to every single vertebrate animal study conducted in the USA," Crook pointed out. "I am strongly in favor of requiring equivalent, properly tested and validated, regulations for cephalopods."

Not everyone shares Crook's position that it is possible to engage in ethical cephalopod experiments. As far as King is concerned, "I don’t think it’s ethical or moral to perform experiments on octopuses that are, one, physically invasive or, two, that require collection of 'subjects' from the wild or breeding of 'subjects' in captive colonies." Since nearly all experiments on octopuses fall into one or both of those categories, by extension, King feels they should all be banned.

"We might think up an exception to my desired ban on experimentation: perhaps non-invasive observational experiments on cognitive problem-solving or emotional expression by octopuses already held in captivity — animals not good candidates for release back into a wild habitat — could yield knowledge that helps octopuses themselves," King added as a caveat. "But in general, consistent with my stance that experimentation on vertebrate animals is ethically wrong and scientifically unhelpful, it is my stance that experimentation on invertebrate octopuses is ethically wrong and scientifically unhelpful."

Crook, who told Salon that she has never personally witnessed experiments she would consider immoral or unethical on octopuses and would intervene if she had, added that she does not believe inhumane studies of octopuses are currently common.

"The field has advanced significantly in the past 15 years or so and most researchers using cephalopods are well educated on the validated refinement techniques to limit or eliminate possible sources of suffering," Crook explained. Even so, she said that an experiment in theory would be inhumane if it involved practices like making incisions or amputations without anesthesia and maintaining analgesics for at least one day afterward "with a caveat here that analgesic for cephalopods are very, very, poorly studied and more work is needed urgently here."

Crook also said she would have concerns about any experiment "that involves prolonged fixation or restraint in one position," since those experiments force "the animal to be deprived of the ability to perform natural behavior for extended periods without a valid scientific reason."

King recalled one particularly cruel experiment that she chronicled in her book Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat. It perhaps perfectly captures the inherent brutality of many octopus experiments.

"I describe research conducted by biologist Jean Alupay and her team that involved crush injuries administered to the arms of five octopuses in an experiment," King wrote to Salon, noting that the octopuses were first put under anesthesia as an implicit concession to the pain they would otherwise experience. "Later researchers applied electrodes to the arm stumps. The octopuses cradled the wounded areas or curled other arms around them."

King quoted from the 2014 study, that noted "all animals inked and jetted at the onset of stimulation and showed immediate wound-grooming behavior, where the arm stump or crushed site was held in the beak.”

"It makes me feel both physically ill and swamped with empathy to think of what these octopuses endured," King said. "And to know that they are by far not alone in suffering in this way in laboratories."

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