The Joys and Challenges of Caring for Terrance the Octopus

Dr. Cameron Clifford, a dentist in Edmond, Okla., said his son Cal, 9, has been infatuated with octopuses since he was 3 years old. “Every birthday, every Christmas, every holiday, he would always say: ‘All I want is an octopus,’” Dr. Clifford said.

For a while, the family nurtured Cal’s interest by buying him octopus toys and octopus T-shirts, dressing him as an octopus for Halloween and taking him to aquariums to see live octopuses.

Then, last October, Dr. Clifford sprang for the real deal.

He ordered his son a California two-spot octopus to keep as a pet in a tank in his bedroom. It arrived via UPS in a bag of water packed inside a cardboard box on Oct. 11, Cal’s ninth birthday. Cal named it Terrance.

Unbeknown to the family, Terrance was a female, who released what Dr. Clifford described as “a chandelier” of puffy little eggs in December. He assumed the eggs were unfertilized until one night in February, when, while cleaning the tank, he picked one up and examined it closely.

“I accidentally popped it, and this droplet comes out and spreads out these tiny tentacles and does three swim strokes across my viewpoint,” he said. “It was absolutely shocking.”

Over the next week or so, 49 more hatchlings emerged from their eggs, setting off a rush by the family to keep the tiny octopuses alive and find them homes. Dr. Clifford has been documenting the experience on TikTok, where some of his videos have received more than two million views. Viewers have responded with crying and heart emojis.

“It’s expensive, wet chaos,” said Dr. Clifford, 36, who has spent thousands of dollars on tanks, water filters, water chillers, crabs, snails and clams in an expanding cephalopod aquarium that briefly took over part of a bathroom in the family home. Among other challenges, he has had to contend with a small electrical fire and about 10 gallons of saltwater that spilled on the carpet of his son’s bedroom.

“It’s a lot of work,” he said. “A lot of work and emotion and money and time.”

It is also rewarding, he said. The family loves to pet Terrance, Dr. Clifford said, and makes her “puzzles” by putting a crab in a clear container for her to pull out and eat. Terrance is “one social cephalopod,” as one TikTok calls her, showing her extending a tentacle over the top of the tank as if to say hello.

Many scientists discourage people from keeping octopuses as pets, noting that most require live food, carefully calibrated aquatic conditions and frequent stimulation. They also try to escape from their tanks and generally live for less than two years.

Paul Clarkson, director of husbandry operations at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif., said that when he first heard about the Clifford family, he thought they had “no business caring for an octopus.”

But after watching Dr. Clifford’s TikTok videos, he was “pleasantly surprised.”

“It’s a delightful story and it seems like they have done a pretty remarkable job as home aquarium keepers, caring for that animal,” Mr. Clarkson said. “They obviously went to great lengths and expense.”

Still, he cautioned that most pet owners are not equipped to care for an octopus.

“They don’t make good pets and, as that family documents in their story, the effort, the time, the money involved in caring for that animal is tremendous and is, at times, kind of a 24/7 job,” Mr. Clarkson said. “My recommendation is: Don’t try this at home.”

Jordan Baker, senior aquarist at the New England Aquarium in Boston, said the California two-spot octopus, known as a bimac, can lay up to 800 eggs, “so this family lucked out by having 50 or so by the end of their experience.”

“Managing water quality, husbandry and a short life span for sensitive animals like octopuses can turn into a full-time job, especially with hatchlings involved,” she said. “It can be done, but for an average octopus enthusiast, the cost involved in both dollars and labor would be high.”

Dr. Clifford said that he ordered Terrance through a broker he found through the Octopus News Magazine Online, which calls itself “an online community and news resource for anything and everything pertaining to octopuses, squids and cephalopods.” He said he was told the octopus came from a diver with a fishing license in California, which permits people to catch octopuses in areas that are not state marine reserves.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife website calls California two-spot octopuses “welcome aquarium pets” and says they are among the most common species used to study octopus genomics, development and evolution.

But some object to keeping octopuses as pets, and Dr. Clifford said he had faced some backlash on social media. Octopuses have attracted widespread attention for their intelligence since the film “My Octopus Teacher,” about a South African naturalist’s daily interactions with a small octopus, won the Academy Award for best documentary feature in 2021.

“Octopuses are wild creatures whose habitat is the ocean and coastal marine waters,” said Barbara J. King, a professor emerita of anthropology at the College of William & Mary, who has written about octopuses. “There, they live in dens, may use tools as they go about daily life and, in some places, express complex social behaviors. They don’t belong in human homes, full stop.”

Dr. Clifford said he has managed to keep about 24 of the octopus hatchlings alive, with the help of a friend who is keeping them at a property he owns. Even in the wild, scientists say, very few hatchlings survive.

Dr. Clifford said he had hired an intern to reach out to aquariums and research institutions to ask if any were willing to take the hatchlings. At least two have expressed interest, he said.

“I don’t know that we’ve been fully prepared for any of these challenges, but the hope is to re-home as many as we can,” he said. “And those that we can’t, we will figure out a way to keep them alive and be responsible. It’s not a real concrete plan, but we’re doing pretty good so far.”

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