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15 April 2016

A thoughtful octopus

A thoughtful octopus

Simon Jenkins is the author of The Bible from Scratch and tweets at @simonjenks

It was revealed this week that an octopus has made a Houdini-like escape from a New Zealand aquarium. The octopus, named Inky by aquarium staff, discovered that the lid of his tank had not been closed properly after maintenance work. When the aquarium was closed for the night, he slithered out through a tiny gap, crossed the aquarium floor leaving telltale octopus tracks, oozed his way down a 50 metre drainpipe and exited to freedom in the sea.

Inky was something of a star at the aquarium, and although staff were sad at his departure, they did not begrudge his intrepid escape. One of them, Rob Yarrell, was admiring: "Octopuses are famous escape artists, but Inky really tested the waters here. I don't think he was unhappy with us, or lonely, as octopus are solitary creatures. But he is such a curious boy. He would want to know what's happening on the outside. That's just his personality."

I've never read a theology or heard a sermon about an octopus – which would presumably have eight points – but my eye was caught by the way the people who had contact with this highly intelligent creature had humanised him, giving him a cute and cartoonish name and turning him into a superior pet. It seems apt that his story has an ending straight out of Finding Nemo.

Octopuses, with their four pairs of arms, three hearts and a brain distributed throughout their tentacles, are fundamentally mysterious. They receive no parenting, as their mothers die as they hatch. Despite their alien-like bodies, they form complex relationships with humans who handle them. They recognise individual faces and have strong likes and dislikes for people. The more we know about them, the more it could be said that they are "fearfully and wonderfully made", as the psalmist says of the human body in Psalm 139.

The octopus was the model for one of the world's mythical sea creatures, the kraken. But it could almost take the role of another great sea beast, leviathan, as described in the dazzling final chapters in the book of Job.

The leviathan in Job 42 contains all the positives and negatives in our relationships with the animal world. There's cruelty: "Can you pull in leviathan with a fishhook, or tie down its tongue with a rope?"; there's captivity: "Will it make an agreement with you for you to take it as your slave for life?"; there's fear and wonder: "It makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment."

God presents leviathan to Job in order to demonstrate His own uncontrollable power. The chapter invites us to meditate on the strength and beauty of this mysterious creature in order to understand God more deeply. But in doing that, it also asks us to meditate on leviathan in its own right, as a creature with its own life and dignity, and to think about our tangled relationship with the wider animal world.

In a small book Why Look at Animals?, the author John Berger reflects on the dwindling presence of animals in our world. Where we once visibly shared the world with animals, who were our companions, present all around us, they have become pets, where they have become accessories in our lives, or a spectacle, like Inky before he quit the aquarium.

His quiet disappearing act challenges us on stewardship: are we giving enough thought and nurture to the animals who share this world with us?