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Pet Product News Editorial Blog:

July 16, 2012

The Canary Conundrum

By Elizabeth Creith


In the Cheesy Horror Movies section of the video store where we get our weekly fix is a movie called "Sharktopus.” The cover shows a critter that is shark to the waist—I guess—and all octopus tentacles after that. It's supposed to represent the ultimate undersea horror, but the first time I saw it I laughed my head off, because it reminded me of the canary conundrum.

A local canary breeder told us once that you can go for looks or for song. You can get a really pretty bird or you can get a wonderful singer. You can't—and this is important—have both. If you try, he said, what you invariably get is an ugly bird that can't sing.

We've had both sharks and octopus in the pet store, and I can't imagine two creatures further apart on the marine-life continuum. Sharks are sleek, obviously built for speed. Those tails can propel them through the water with frightening rapidity. They are not, however, candidates for Mensa. Octopuses, on the other hand, aren't nearly as fast as sharks, but are quite intelligent. (It's not octopi, incidentally, because "octopus" is Greek for eight-footed, not Latin. If you insist on being a classicist, you can use "octopodes," pronounced "octopodies.”)

Shark and octopus
We once ordered two cat sharks from a supplier, expecting the usual 6-inch hatchlings, and got two 20-inchers that had been wild-caught. Cat sharks are reef sharks, affectionately called "gummies" because they mostly suck up invertebrates and small fish and are timid and unlikely to bite. As you might expect on a wild-caught animal, they were carrying parasites, so we put a cleaner wrasse in with them to take care of the problem. We kept the sharks well-fed, but on the third day the wrasse was conspicuously absent. Once he'd removed the parasites, he'd moved from the "household help" list onto the "dinner" list.

We also had an octopus at one point, a little one with a head the size of a walnut in the shell. He was pinky-grey most of the time, but could change colour to blend in with whatever he was sitting on. Octopuses are great escape artists. It helps that they're boneless; the only really non-compressible part of an octopus is its eye. One octopus was caught on camera getting out of its tank, crossing a room, entering another tank to catch fish and eat them and then returning to its own tank. They can unscrew jar lids.

To preempt this one's escape (and to keep him from eating, say, an expensive tang), we put him in the largest exercise ball we could fit into the aquarium, the ferret-sized one. Before David's hand was out of the tank, that octopus was feeling all over the edges of the click-in closure, working on how to get out. Eventually we put him into the 24-gallon display tank, where he perched on the reef and made a hobby out of trying to give me a heart attack first thing in the morning by blending in so that I couldn't see him.

I loved the sharks, whose skins, by the way, felt like velvet and sandpaper. I also loved the octopus, that would sometimes, if someone was cleaning the tank, come over and feel the strange hand-animal who'd come to visit. Once when I had just the tip of my finger touching the water, he put up a tentacle and gave my finger a brief hug. I felt all gooey and squishy. I know—I'm now officially weird.

When I looked up the movie on IMDb, I found that the premise of "Sharktopus" was a government project run amok. I wasn't surprised. Leave it to a government agency, especially one in a horror movie, to take a smart, slow animal and a fast, dumb one and combine them to produce an ugly bird that can't sing.

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