How to train your octopus, Shedd Aquarium-style

A slimy, reddish orange creature emerges from the depth of the dark water in a cramped room behind the exhibits at Shedd Aquarium and latches onto a woman’s arm with one of its tentacles.

For most people, this scene is the stuff of nightmares. For Eve Barrs, an aquarist at Shedd Aquarium, it’s just another day at the office with her pal Opal, a giant Pacific octopus.

“She’s climbing up a little bit higher so that she can see everything,” Barrs explained. “My job is to make sure that she’s safe. I don’t want arms to stay outside too long. I don’t want to encourage her to climb, so if they go back on their own then I’ll reinforce that.”

Barrs is one of eight employees charged with training Opal, Shedd’s resident octopus. Opal’s tank isn’t big enough for Barrs to climb into herself, so Barrs must first lure the creature to the surface. Part of this involves setting up a black umbrella just outside Opal’s cage to keep the sunlight from the skylights above the area out.

“In the morning, if all of your lights blink on, that’s not positive,” she said. “It’s the same for her, so we’ve removed some of that filter. This makes her feel more comfortable and makes the session time even more positive.”

And contrary to what pop culture might lead you to believe, octopi are actually fairly intelligent.

“They’re so different from us, and they seem so foreign and so strange yet they can figure out how to play puzzles, and they can figure out what you’re asking for,” said Barrs, 33, of the West Loop. “It’s really unique.”

RedEye got an exclusive look behind the scenes at Shedd Aquarium about a day in the life of an octopus trainer earlier this week as part of International Cephalopod Awareness Days.

Once her tank is open, Opal’s behavior more closely resembles that of an overgrown puppy fresh out of a bath, if that puppy had eight arms capable of latching on to things at a moment’s notice.

“One arm might be stealing the toy off the ledge while the other arm is exploring over here and the other arm is being very polite,” Barrs said. “If every (arm) is kind of polite, you reinforce that arm and very quickly (the octopus) understands if ‘I’m in the water and I’m still and I’m kind of paying attention and I’m not stealing things, I’m going to get a piece of food.’ ”

And indeed, from the moment the tank opens, Opal is constantly in motion, latching on to Barrs’ arm and putting her tentacles outside the tank in an effort to keep Barrs’ attention focused squarely on her.

“She’s quick, and she’s very strong,” she said. “You can feel when she’s holding on to my fingers, there’s a little suction cup sound. She can definitely control that. She can hold tighter or she can completely let go.”

So how exactly does one train a giant octopus?

Much in the same way you’d train your dog, believe it or not.

“They learn much the way your pet at home knows your morning routine, the octopus knows what to expect, and we hope finds it very positive,” she said. “She comes right away, she lingers when we’re done, and these are signs that maybe she’s enjoying our time together.”

Part of that involves bribing her with--what else--food.

“Food is really encouraging to most of our animals here,” she said. “They know that they’ve done something good if they get food immediately following.”

Opal’s training sessions, which tend to last about 10 to 15 minutes, begin with a feeding session consisting of some of her favorite foods--shrimp and squid, mostly--before the grand finale, a small plastic puzzle box with Opal’s favorite dessert, ice cubes, inside.

The moment Barrs places the box inside Opal’s tank, the octopus completely engulfs it with her body, a scene that is equal parts fascinating and terrifying to witness in person.

“That’s how they would hunt,” Barrs said. “She knows that this toy is not to eat but there might be a bit of food inside there. She’s going to keep that toy up inside her body just in case there might be food in there for her.”

While Opal’s training sessions are brief, Barrs said they provide her and Opal’s seven other trainers a wealth of information that is meticulously recorded to ensure that she continues to lead a healthy and happy life.

One of the best indications of whether or not a stimulus is working is Opal’s skin color, which can change depending on her emotions.

“We know that if something is introduced into the habitat that is frightening to them, they will blanch white,” she said. “We’re pretty comfortable that means ‘I’m not comfortable with that.’ ”

Matt Lindner is a RedEye special contributor.

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