Octopus: Genius of the deep

They can use tools and experience pain and stress. Octopuses are so intelligent they may win special protection in laboratory research - and from the cruelty dished out by some restaurant kitchens
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Author William Burroughs saw the octopus as a "highly emotional" creature, liable to change red with lust or pale green with fear. But in British laboratories, cephalopods are regarded as a species so unsophisticated they are denied even basic legal protection.

Not only can cephalopods be experimented upon live, their vivisection does not require a licence. As a result, there is no record of how many are being used in lab tests or for what they are being used. But compelling new evidence about their abilities means that may be about to change.

New research has shown that octopuses and their cousins, the squid and cuttlefish, are far more intelligent than previously thought. They can experience suffering and are capable of complex thought, even to the extent of using tools.

The discovery has provoked a rethink by the Government and European Union. Proposals are being drawn up to offer octopuses and their kind the same protection in laboratories as monkeys, cats and dogs.

There is even talk of their receiving better protection in restaurant kitchens, where they are routinely chopped up and cooked alive, after the European food watchdog ruled that they were capable of suffering "pain and distress".

Behind closed doors in Whitehall and Brussels, evidence of the surprising sophistication of cephalopods is being studied closely.

This evidence has so convinced officials on the Animal Procedures Committee (APC), the experimentation watchdog in the UK, that it has recommended to ministers that the law governing animal testing be amended so all cephalopods are given the same protection as animals.

But though ministers have accepted the evidence, they have stopped short of changing the law in the UK. Instead, they are delaying a decision on whether to extend protection until a wider EU ruling is made.

Dr Gill Langley, science director of the Dr Hadwen Trust for Humane Research, said the evidence was so compelling that ministers should have immediately changed the law.

"As a member of the APC, when this issue was discussed I was extremely disappointed that the minister didn't accept the recommendations of the Government's own advisory committee... There is more than enough scientific evidence for the sentiency and intelligence of cephalopods."

Already in Canada, New Zealand and Norway, octopuses, squid and cuttlefish are covered by animal welfare laws requiring them to be treated and killed humanely in the laboratories.

The animal welfare group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), says Britain and other EU countries must follow suit fast.

Jessica Sandler, director of regulatory testing at Peta, said: "There is much evidence that these creatures are not only intelligent but sensitive. They are capable of feeling stress and pain under experimental conditions, so it is obvious they should be covered under animal welfare legislation."