Crisis ecology at the Vancouver Aquarium: Putting octopuses to work for conservation

Authors: Mollie Holmberg*, University of British Columbia
Topics: Animal Geographies, Cultural and Political Ecology, Anthropocene
Keywords: captive care, violence, ecological crisis, zoos and aquariums, conservation science
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2019
Start / End Time: 3:55 PM / 5:35 PM
Room: 8228, Park Tower Suites, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In this time of accelerating ecological crises, captive care has emerged as a triage site where nonprofit conservation organizations attempt to resuscitate species and ecosystems rapidly disappearing from the planet. Zoos and aquariums play a central and controversial role in this care. The Vancouver Aquarium considers conserving aquatic life its central mission. My research focuses on the giant pacific octopus exhibit at the Vancouver Aquarium, investigating how people at the Aquarium use this exhibit to implement conservation work by reconfiguring octopuses’ socioecological relationships. Using a mix of semi-structured interviews, document analysis, and ethnographic observations, I examine how wild octopuses come to the Aquarium and what their socioecological relationships are, including how octopuses are kept alive or healthy. I then explore what people hope to accomplish for conservation, science, education, and entertainment through the octopus exhibit. Through this work, I find that the Aquarium leverages the octopus’s charisma to evoke care for local aquatic ecosystems. Caring for octopuses and their ecosystems at the Aquarium encloses them within new forms of human control that only unravel where this care fails or ends. However, both the success and undoing of human care for octopuses produce violence and give life. Reconfiguring octopuses’ ecological relationships in captivity restricts their movement and degrades their health even as failed care can kill and liberating octopuses exposes them to environmental ills that captivity protects them from. This work therefore illustrates how the Aquarium’s conservation mandate operates in tension with forms of violence it simultaneously erodes and relies upon.

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