How a book about a giant Pacific octopus helped me confront my dog’s mortality.
We humans take a lot of pride in enumerating the ways in which we’re different from other animals. TV shows like “Love Is Blind” run off the idea that our physical attributes are less important than our emotional connections — a lovely thought that ignores the fact that most of the animal kingdom takes outward characteristics into account when searching for mates. In domesticating certain animals, we have similarly separated ourselves from them, though whether as their servants (cats) or protectors (dogs) is still in dispute.
And yet, in the end, animals have repeatedly displayed a remarkable ability to perceive and understand human emotions and actions — and to interact with us in unique, meaningful ways. In “My Octopus Teacher,” a filmmaker befriends a common octopus in a South African kelp forest. During his daily visits over the course of a year, it’s clear the friendship goes both ways, as the octopus learns to float up to meet the filmmaker and wrap herself around his hand, as well as to playfully manhandle his camera.
Reading Shelby Van Pelt’s debut novel, Remarkably Bright Creatures, reinforced for me the truly astonishing ways animals can enrich our lives. It’s a subject I’d been dwelling on as Scout, the beloved dog that got me through mental-health struggles, my divorce, and the pandemic, inevitably ages and I confront her mortality.
In the novel, Marcellus, an elderly mollusk at the Sowell Bay Aquarium, is resigned to living out his life in captivity with only the cleaning woman, Tova, as a friend. When a mysterious stranger begins visiting the aquarium, however, Marcellus deduces a connection between the man and the widowed Tova and uses his considerable skills to bring them together.
Given that the book features chapters narrated by Marcellus, it’s tempting to call it fantasy. And yet nothing the octopus does is theoretically impossible for such a creature: sneaking out of his tank at night, depositing items around the aquarium for Tova to find, latching onto her when he needs a ride back to safety. In the end, he is the only reason the mystery is resolved.
I often think of Scout as the only reason many of the good things in my life have happened (although that discounts my own agency). Through her, I’ve met some of my best friends, including a family whose child Scout and I took care of during the pandemic. She motivates me to go for way longer walks than I ever would on my own and to literally stop and smell the flowers while on those walks.
In my darkest moments, when I’ve felt broken beyond repair, I’ve heard her little feet come pitter-pattering toward me, culminating in a leap onto my chest and a snuffling nose that, no matter how bad I’m feeling, never fails to make me smile. If we want to set nonhuman animals apart as different from ourselves, perhaps it is because they are, in fact, better than we are, less bound by our anxieties and peccadillos. Scout is reliable, uncomplicated, and never judgmental. Somehow, scooping her poop seems a small price to pay for her steadfast companionship.
Reading about Marcellus’ slow deterioration reminded me that there’s another price we pay for loving our furry friends: the grief of losing them. This grief feels so unmanageable, so all-consuming, that it’s hard for me to think about without panicking — so much so that I’ve had to consult my therapist about how to deal with it. Her advice: It will come, so enjoy the time you have.
And that, I’ve concluded, is how I will move forward: honoring Scout by making her life the best it can be until it’s over and remembering that, in the end, we two beings are not so different after all.
Mariko Hewer is a freelance editor and writer. She is passionate about good books, good food, and good company. Find her occasional insights of varying quality on Twitter at @hapahaiku.