ShareThis Page
Armed with affection, octogenarian is an ‘octopus whisperer’ | TribLIVE.com
More Lifestyles

Armed with affection, octogenarian is an ‘octopus whisperer’

The Associated Press
| Tuesday, January 22, 2019 1:30 a.m
663992_web1_663992-eeb2490cf6624487acf9c7c8bad0bff9
663992_web1_663992-8c50434f70c0423ba7bd1f7bfe7b5a29
663992_web1_663992-52efaf20915c4028ba6426eefd2b5968

BOSTON — Wilson Menashi palmed a squid in his left hand and extended his arm into an aquarium tank, watching as a giant Pacific octopus stretched out arms to greet him like a friend.

Freya latched some of her 2,240 suction cups onto Menashi’s arm, using their powers of taste and smell to gather information around the 84-year-old man known as the octopus whisperer — and the seafood treats he was bearing.

“She’s just contacting me and she’s saying, ‘You come to me,’” Menashi said of Freya, a 3-year-old predator weighing 35 to 40 pounds (18 kilograms). Her arms span 14 feet (4 meters) and pack enough strength to kill sharks and other enemies.

But this afternoon’s gentle interaction left no doubt that Menashi has a special way with the cephalopod, whose body includes a large, sac-like head and eight powerful arms.

More than 25 years ago, Menashi retired after a career as a chemical engineer and began volunteering at the New England Aquarium in Boston. He’s spent 7,800 hours — the equivalent of about four years working full time — hanging out with octopuses, the aquarium said.

“I’ve been able to interact with them from the beginning. I do not know why. I cannot explain it, but I can connect with them,” Menashi said, standing in front of the Olympic Coast Sanctuary exhibit that is home to Freya and Professor Ludwig Von Drake, a younger male giant Pacific octopus living in a separate tank.

Menashi’s eyes twinkled with mischief as he acknowledged that encounters with octopus have left a mark on him.

“I will come back home sometimes with hickeys all over my arm and my neck,” he said.

So how did he explain them to his wife?

“Not too difficult when you have about 10 or 15 marks next to each other,” he said. “It did not take too much. She also knew where I was, anyway.”

Menashi’s volunteer work has included designing puzzle boxes for octopus as well as rubbing their backs and wrestling their arms, all intended to ensure that the highly intelligent animals receive the mental stimulation to thrive and stay healthy.

Two decades of working with the largest members of the octopus species has not dulled his sense of wonder at the animal’s adaptability and mysteries.

Experiments have shown these animals to be color blind, but they are supreme masters of camouflage. A complex system of pigment cells, nerves and muscles allows them to change skin color in the blink of an eye to match their surroundings.

“What I find totally surprising is how they could tell different people and react differently,” Menashi said. “I’ve also made them a few toys, made up some boxes and … I put different latches so they could get in and figure out how to get the food that I put in the boxes. However, I’ve had some that said, ‘It’s too much time to figure out how you do the latch.’ So they just crushed the box.”

That eye for detail, patience and willingness to experiment makes Menashi a perfect octopus whisperer, said Bill Murphy, a senior aquarist.

“Every octopus is different. So then you can’t use the same rules for every octopus,” Murphy said. “You need to change it up. And Wilson does that.”

Menashi said spending time with octopuses and other animals gives his life a whole new purpose in retirement.

“Just being here has been, to me, a lifesaver,” he said. “Gave me something to do. Gave me different interests and showed me the world is a wonderful place to be.”

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.