fishing lines; Eight legs and a mean mouth

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THE most dangerous pet I ever owned was a cute little feller, no more than a couple of inches long, covered with peacock-blue rings. I only discovered later that the eight-legged horror could have killed me with a single nip.

Goodness knows how I ended up owning a blue-ringed octopus in the first place. They are so deadly that the latest version of Venomous Creatures of Australia carries a detailed account of what happens if this creature sinks its small beak into you.

"Extensive studies suggest that the venom's main component is similar to the toxin present in highly poisonous fish such as the puffer fishes. [In Japan, only qualified chefs are allowed to prepare fugu from the puffer fish]. The poison interferes with the movement of impulses down the nerves of the body, and results in a progressive paralysis. It has been estimated that sufficient venom may be present in one octopus to cause the paralysis of 10 adults.

"When a human is bitten, the site may be relatively painless. If enough venom has been introduced, within a few minutes the victim will notice tingling sensations in tongue and lips, and will soon have difficulty in seeing or speaking. Within 10 minutes he or she may have vomited and collapsed. Breathing may stop because of the paralysis. If mouth-to-mouth resuscitation or some other form of artificial respiration is not given, the victim will become unconscious and eventually die of heart failure due to lack of oxygen."

Phew! That was a close one! It could even have vetoed my vet as well, if he had taken advice from the British Veterinary Association's annual congress. Lance Jepson, secretary of the Veterinary Invertebrates Society, told members that octopuses need just as much TLC as any dog or cat, and insisted that vets should monitor and care for the health of captive octopuses. This involves everything from learning their complex feeding needs to giving a cephalopod anaesthetic.

Octopuses are commonly used for laboratory experiments. This has depleted stocks around Britain's coast and led to their being given protection under the Animals Scientific Procedures Act. "The vet must decide when an experiment procedure is painful and make sure that the octopus is properly anaesthetised. Many vets, used to dealing with four-legged creatures, are likely to panic when called on to deal with an octopus," Jepson says.

I've never caught an octopus on rod and line, though it must be possible. But I've captured quite a few squid, which are closely related. Very small ones are excellent bait for all fish, especially cod. Throughout summer off Dorset there's always a chance of hooking a squid if you're using fish baits. They give a curious plucking sort of bite, rather like a guitarist tuning up on your line. You have to wind it in very slowly, otherwise it just lets go and disappears in a cloud of ink.

These are not the giant squid of James Bond and Captain Nemo fame, the big-as-a-bus monsters that sink boats and have mighty battles with sperm whales. The largest I've caught was a mere 3ft long. But you still need to be careful. Like octopus, they have a parrot-like beak under their arms. It's not venomous, but it can give one hell of a bite. Professional fishermen say there are times when the sea seems full of squid. Hauling nets in the dark is a spooky business at such times. You can tell if the net contains a lot of squid from the clattering noise of all those beaks, talking like a jungle full of parrots.

I acquired my blue ringer in a very odd way. The local aquaria shop had just received a shipment of "living rock", and I bought three big chunks for my marine tank. The octopus must have been lurking inside the rock. I only discovered its lethal nature when talking to Graham Cox, one of the country's authorities on marine aquaria. He went pale when I described it, and told me how he had immediately killed a similar octopus among one of his shipments. The thought of a killer just a few feet from my bed was too much. So I gingerly netted the tiny murder weapon, and flushed it down the lavatory. Jepson, I suspect, would not have approved.

Footnote: The fridge saga has been resolved by buying one fridge and one freezer. But how to conceal a box of squid when you're banned from keeping bait in the freezer? An empty raspberry pavlova box or ice-cream carton works well. But beware of dinner parties unless you're doing all the cooking.

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