A Conversation With the Octopus at Milwaukee County Zoo

When she found out that the Milwaukee County Zoo had reopened to visitors, our editor-in-chief made a date with her favorite resident.

I’ve interviewed enough divas in my career as a journalist to know that they always make you wait. Mini Muffin, the Milwaukee County Zoo’s giant Pacific octopus, was no different. Sure, she has a few more appendages than the average superstar. But this gal played it like a pro, emerging at the last possible moment with so much charm and razzle-dazzle that all was forgiven.

The first interview was a complete fiasco, with Mini squirreled away in the subflooring of her tank. This was in March, and Mini was still new to the zoo and getting used to her surroundings. Her publicist, Jennifer Diliberti-Shea, whose official title is public relations coordinator for the Milwaukee County Zoo, was apologetic.

“Sorry,” said Diliberti-Shea. “She’s been hiding like this for weeks.”

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When I returned in June, the subflooring had been sealed. Still, Mini was a reluctant subject. Now she was holed up in a shallow cave in her tank. When we made eye contact, her skin went from bluish-purple to fire engine red. This did not bode well.

But this time, I was prepared to wait as long as it took. This wasn’t any old assignment. I had wanted to meet an octopus for years.

While waiting, I spoke with Shawn Miller, curator of the Aquatic and Reptile Center, who shared my wonderment for octopuses. “It’s a strange animal,” he said. “It has such a high intelligence, a high cerebral complexity. They have 30,000 more gene pairs than humans.”

Cephalopods took a different evolutionary path than we did, and to find a common ancestor, you need to go back 600 million years to a “flattened, worm-like creature,” according to Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and The Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith. Godfrey-Smith refers to cephalopods as “an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals.”

But octopuses aren’t just the brainiacs of the ocean. They possess an array of unusual abilities. “They are able to change the texture of their skin,” Miller said. “For an animal with no bones to raise ridges, to be able to change to look like coral, and for an animal with no color vision to be able to change colors, it’s absolutely amazing.”

After an hour, Mini emerged, pulsating in vibrant purple with eyes that glowed as if they were backlit. Aliza, our photographer, started snapping and Mini seemed to strike a pose, then another, showing off her gorgeous dome.

Miller led us through an “employees only” door to a platform at the top of Mini’s tank. He put his arm in, and Mini wrapped a couple appendages around it immediately. She pulled herself up so she was partially on the edge of the tank. I carefully slid my hand under a tentacle, and she wrapped it around my arm. I could feel the light tug of her suction cups. Octopuses have more than 2,000 of these on each arm, and each suction cup has more taste receptors than a human tongue. Each arm also has a small brain. “Two-thirds of their neurons are found in their arms, which allows their arms to work independently,” said Miller. “While one arm is opening a clam, another arm can be fishing in a cave.”

I gently touched Mini’s head. It was cool, smooth and slippery. I was entranced. I asked Miller, “if she could talk, what do you think she would say?”

He gave me a look. “I have no idea!” “Do you think she feels superior to us?” “Well, she is, in some ways,” he replied. I had to agree. Octopuses are superior in many ways, and that earns Mini and her cohort the right to be divas.

You’ve heard of star-struck? I was octopus-struck. The wait was entirely worth it.


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s September issue.

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Editor-in-chief Carole Nicksin has worked in publishing for over 20 years. Prior to joining the staff of Milwaukee Magazine, she was the style director at All You, a Time Inc. publication. She also served as decorating editor at Home magazine. Carole has written for the New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, InStyle and numerous other publications.