the Film adaptation From Tim Winton’s Blueback novel, coming out this week. It centers on his friendship with a large friendly fish – the blue grouper; and the strong response of a human threatening an animal. As with My octopus teacherIt’s a very touching story, and most people find it unusual or unique. Because humans only befriend pets like cats and dogs. Or are they?
Let’s start with the blue grouper. This is a charismatic Australian native, with many interesting characteristics. They are primary hermaphrodites, and begin their lives as juveniles, potentially male or female; And they always start out as green colored females. The dominant male has a harem, and if he dies, the largest female will become male and adopt the striking blue coloration that gives the fish its name. These fish can live up to 70 years and are the state emblem of New South Wales.
Science aside, these are extraordinarily curious and friendly fish. As a regular snorkeler and diver, I am often greeted by a loafer who will flick his face into the camera, rub my hand, smack his lips and follow me around. Groupers seem to recognize divers and are curious about what we’re doing. It is illegal to shoot these animals in my native state, but such is my emotional reaction to their friendship, I can imagine jumping in front of a gun pointed at one of my friends.
Octopuses are similarly interactive and interested in us. They are invertebrates that have developed a unique and extraordinary intelligence, diverging from us evolutionarily more than 600 million years ago. They use tools and mimics, build shelters, steal things, and are known to be escape artists when kept in captivity.
In Sydney we mainly interact with dark octopuses (Octopus Tetricus). One of the highlights of my life was the first time one of these creatures raised its tentacles and explored my hand. Since then, I’ve had many interactions, including an octopus riding on my hand, a desperate attempt to steal my camera, and some telling me to go away by blowing sand in my face. Unfortunately, octopuses don’t live long – they usually become senile after mating and last only 1-2 years. The soft stingrays we see regularly are often eaten in the blink of an eye. It’s hard to be in love with them because the end is always near.
Moving to land, most of us are familiar with wild birds looking for human companionship. Yes, they often go after food, but who doesn’t? My neighborhood is dominated by a sulphur-crested cockatoo, but it takes a little patience to get a rainbow lorikeet or king parrot to work up the courage to stand up to a human hand.
Even small insects can notice humans and change their behavior to interact with us. Spiders hop in almost everyone’s garden but you can miss it if you don’t look hard. Most are less than half an inch long. However, close your eyes to one, and there is no doubt that they see you, as they move their bodies to make eye contact. They are also fans of cameras, sometimes jumping right at you!
Relationships with wild animals are possible and common – you can have your own Blueback or My Octopus Teacher experience. Come back to the same place often and you’ll get to know the regulars. Getting to know animals as individuals with varying personalities and behaviors gives them great importance. But know that it has the potential to nudge you closer to veganism and inspire you toward conservation. Because once you have a relationship and are attached to another living creature, it becomes part of your field of sympathy. Hence there is no choice but to protect the animal and its environment. Blue “pet” puppy or Labrador? You can have both, and it just might make you a better human being.