Crisis ecology at the Vancouver Aquarium: putting octopuses to work for conservation (2019)
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, leveraging environmental crisis narratives to justify and garner support for its work, 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 multispecies ethnography, I examine how wild octopuses come to the Aquarium and how their socioecological relationships transform in this space. I then explore how staff hope to leverage the octopus exhibit for conservation, science, education, and entertainment. Through this work, I find that narratives about environmental crisis produce modes of caring for octopuses and their ecosystems which enclose octopuses within new forms of human control. This control only unravels where human 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 an environmental crisis it simultaneously erodes and relies upon.