What It’s Really Like to Be an Octopus Wrangler

In our 9–5 series, we ask boss babes what their daily grind entails. On the heels of Inky the octopus’s great escape, we called Katherine MacFadden, an aquarium biologist who specializes in octopuses, for a glimpse into her wet work day

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MacFadden at work with an octopus at Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada in Toronto

Job Title: Lead Aquarist (Aquarium Biologist) at Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada in Toronto

Age: 31

Education: BSc in Marine Biology

Length of time in your current gig: Nearly three years

What does being an aquarist entail? The daily care and maintenance of the animals in the collection. So that includes cleaning the tanks, testing water quality, feeding the animals. I’m in the Canadian Waters gallery, and I take care of the octopus, plus a few other exhibits there.

How is taking care of an octopus different from taking care of other aquatic animals? They’re much more intelligent than the average fish. But they’re an invertebrate, too, so the challenges are different than working with, y’know, a mammal or anything like that. They’re just curious animals; they want to investigate.

Can you give me an example of a challenge particular to octopus? Sure. You heard the news about the octopus escaping in New Zealand?

Yeah. Inky escaped from his tank and slithered down a drain pipe out into the sea. Has an octopus ever attempted a similar escape in Toronto? Not here, no. But we do always have to be very mindful. We line the top of our exhibits with Astroturf, which is something they can’t get a good grip on. I can’t leave any tools in the tank because they’ll steal them or we’ll tug of war with them. And they’re a venomous animal, so I’m careful to avoid being bitten, especially since I do a lot of interaction with them. They’re very strong, powerful creatures, especially when they get big. I have to be mindful of where my hands are, how many suckers they have on me, things like that.

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MacFadden feeding sharks

What kinds of interactions do you do with them? We do a lot of tactile enrichment, which is giving them different activities that bring out their natural hunting behaviour to keep them from getting bored. They’re very tactile animals, and they’re famous for things like opening jars, so we certainly do that here. Mister Potato Head is very popular. We’ll build Lego structures that are as high as the food, so they have to find the food, break the structure open and kind of manipulate it, like they would if they were opening a clam.

How many octopus do you have at Ripley’s? We currently have two Giant Pacific Octopuses: Stubs and Ivar The Boneless.

Do they have distinct personalities? Oh, a hundred percent! They’re completely different as individuals, which again is not something you see, generally, in invertebrates. Stubs is shy, and doesn’t really want much interaction with people—he’s a tough old man, so we don’t hold it against him. And Ivar is our curious, outgoing little superstar.

What is something that people might not know about octopuses? They’re descended from clams, snails, slugs and things like that, so the type of intelligence they have has evolved completely separately from what we understand in the vertebrate world. Their way of perceiving the world is something that we’re just beginning to grasp now, which is what makes them mind-blowingly cool.

What gear do you wear when you get to work? We do have a standard work uniform, but I spend as much time in a wetsuit as I do in my regular clothes, and I’m always in a T-shirt. It’s very wet and dirty.

What’s the best part of your day? When I’m interacting with the animals, especially the octopus. This is an animal who is willingly interacting with me just as much as I am with it, and that’s pretty awesome.

What’s the worst part of your day? Any of the aquarists here will tell you they probably hate mixing the salt water the most. We mix 36,000 gallons at a time, and we’re lifting those bags, opening them and dumping them in.

If someone wanted to do your job, what qualities would they need? Lots of attention to detail, really good observational skills and the ability to adapt to different situations. Animals don’t always follow our schedules.

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever been given?Be open to anything and explore.

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