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Enough panda obsession! Throw your arms around the new octopus

By Petula Dvorak
Tuesday, March 9, 2010; B01

It's our creepiest rite of spring, this annual obsession with panda procreation. Yesterday we were at it again, shamelessly watching a video of poor Mei Xiang's ultrasound to see if the female giant panda might be pregnant with another butter pat.

Enough with the pandas, already.

I'm sorry, but Pandacam is just so 2008.

Tai Shan is gone. The young panda plowed through 40 pounds of bamboo on his 8,000-mile flight from the National Zoo to China last month, landed a corporate sponsorship as soon as he hit the ground and moved into a new crib with a she-bear named Snow White.

Washington needs a new animal celebrity, one more in line with our character, intellect, values and personality. We need to love and celebrate an animal that is more than a bamboo-eating ball of fur. We must end our cuteness dependence on China, for crying out loud.

Helloooo, giant Pacific octopus.

No, really, it makes perfect sense.

Think of all the beasties here in our nation's capital who are like the octopus, with its eight long arms able to reach into so many places at once. It's known for an amazing ability to change both its color and texture to blend into its surroundings.

Campaign trail, anyone?

If the disguise isn't working and it senses danger, it goes shock-white and blossoms red rings around its eyes to look menacing. If that doesn't work, it squirts ink as a diversion and dodges away.

Sound like any Capitol Hill news conferences you've seen lately?

When it feeds, it often slowly descends onto a coral, ballooning around it, then devouring any of the fish that try to swim away, trapped by its expansive embrace.

A Georgetown fundraiser, perhaps?

Our cephalopod of the moment arrived in a brown cardboard box from Vancouver via FedEx last month.

"Our giant panda is here!" rejoiced Alan Peters, who has been the curator of the zoo's invertebrates exhibit since its opening 23 years ago.

He can hope.

It's a tough road to celebrity for the humble invertebrate.

"Yeah, we've got the clam. The anemone. The nautilus. The cuttlefish," sighed Peters, who asked me not to print what he thinks about the pandas.

"I've been holding back," he huffed. "But the octopus, now that really is a charismatic, amazing animal."

Our octopus is just a three-pound, fist-sized youngster, and the zoo is still unsure of gender. But who cares if it's male or female, as long as we no longer have to deal with all those excruciating details of panda fertility? We've suffered through more talk of swabs, estrus, ultrasounds and insemination than the commercials on the Lifetime channel.

The octopus is actually a fascinating creature, less cute perhaps but far more cerebral than many other zoo inhabitants. Kind of like policy wonks.

They are the only invertebrate to have shown the ability to solve puzzles and mazes, and some scientists are pursuing the theory that their changing of colors and patterns is a complex language.

And an octopus has three hearts, just like some of our city's tireless nonprofit do-gooders.

They have a couple hundred suckers -- independent, complex muscles that can be seen up close when stuck to the glass of its tank. None of that "Is that him?" "No, just a shadow" disappointment you get at the panda habitat.

And check this out: The octopus is completely cost-efficient.

The zoo bought it for $1,000 from an octopus dude in Vancouver. Better Canada than China, right?

The animal needs only a tank, chilled water, frequent water changes and monitoring -- costs already built into the exhibit's budget, Peters said. And the octopuscam is already up.

"All they eat is frozen fish; that's cheap. Not like all that bamboo," Peters slips in.

We have to pay China a million bucks a year to rent its pandas, who reside in a compound that cost more than $3 million to build and costs about $350,000 annually to run -- more high maintenance than the Kardashians.

The octopus, however, is fiscally sound.

They have a lifespan of four or five years -- that is just about right for Washington's attention span. And when they croak, no estrus reports; just call octopus dude up north!

Okay, so if you're not feeling the warm fuzzies for our eight-armed friend yet, consider the merchandising opportunities.

"Oh, they can be on T-shirts, mugs, key chains -- anywhere a panda can go," Peters begins to dream. He has never had an animal go that big.

What about a naming contest? Only when an animal is really big does the zoo run a contest. In the past, the octopus got a name the staff or volunteers picked: Octavia, Caroline or Hercules.

Washington, we can do better.

Imagine what Octopalooza can do for the city as a whole. I mean, it's not like our restaurants can get in on the frenzy and serve Pandaburgers, right?

But a nice grilled octopus salad? A little tako nigiri?

That's my kind of zoo animal.

E-mail your name suggestions for our new octopus to dvorakp@washpost.com.

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