A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Can an Octopus Predict the Future?

Paul the oracle octopus is getting into hot water — almost literally. Football fans in Germany, angry that the celebrity cephalopod had correctly predicted that their soccer team would lose to Spain, want Paul to pay the price for his temerity … by being cooked.

The octopus had already gotten it right four times when he picked Germany over Argentina, England, Ghana and Australia. Then he said Spain would beat the Germans. He was right again.

“Nothing bad will happen to Paul,” a spokesperson reassured animal lovers at the Sea Life aquarium where Paul lives. “No one wishes him ill will.” (Certainly not the people of Spain. Update: Yes, he got the final one right when Spain beat the Netherlands.)

So, can animals really predict the future?

Humans have believed so for thousands of years. The Babylonians, Greeks and Romans all believed you could tell the outcome of a battle, a sports event or other decision by killing an animal and examining the entrails. The examining priest would look for any unusual coloring of the organs or more blood than usual.

Behind what we would consider absurd and primitive today lay an understanding, nonetheless, that certain animals do indeed sense things that we humans cannot know.

The higher senses of other animals

While 150,000 humans were killed by the tsunami that swept South Asia in January, 2005, few animals were caught off guard. Well before the tidal waves hit India and Sri Lanka, elephants were seen screaming and running for higher ground. Dogs were hiding and refusing to go outside. Flamingos were abandoning their homes in the low-lying marshes.

A 2004 study of 60 dogs found that nine of them could consistently predict when a child was going to have an epileptic seizure. Other dogs have been trained to warn their person when they’re about to seizure, so they can take protective action.

Earlier this year, Oscar the cat made headlines around the world when, at a nursing home on Rhode Island, Dr. David Dosa reported that the kitty would seek out certain patients he sensed were close to the end and lie down next to them. Two dogs have shown a similarly uncanny – some would say macabre – ability. Scamp, a Schnauzer from a nursing home in Ohio, and Buddy, a golden retriever who visits a hospice in Honolulu, have paid special attention to patients who are in their last hours.

And Cambridge University scientist Rupert Sheldrake has conducted several studies that seem to demonstrate that dogs can sense when their people are on their way back home.

We don’t know exactly how animals sense these things. In the case of the epileptic seizures and terminally sick patients, it’s likely that with their superb sense of smell, the dogs are picking up certain scents from the patients. And scientists say that animals can feel vibrations in the earth or changes in the atmosphere before an earthquake or tsunami strikes.

Whether or not Jim the “Wonder Dog” was picking anything up out of the atmosphere when, in the 1930s, he successfully predicted the winners of seven Kentucky Derbies, the baseball World Series and, reportedly, the sex of unborn babies, is a whole other matter.

And whether Paul the Octopus knows (or cares) who’s going to win a soccer game when he chooses food from this bowl or that at the Sea Life aquarium, we may never know. Zookeepers have noted that it was probably more to do with learning to recognize the German flag on one of the acrilyc food boxes. (So why did he suddenly choose the Spanish one?) They add that Paul would be guided by the shape of the flag patterns, not by the colors, since they’re color-blind. (They do, however know how to change color themselves.)

Some real life predictions

One thing we can all predict from all this hoopla is that the real winners will be the zoos and aquaria that house animals like Paul who have been captured and taken from their homes in the ocean. The one thing the trainers (yes, the animals get trained to do tricks like this for the visitors who pay to come see them) and managers are all being reminded to do is keep the conversation going.

The one thing, instead, that we should be divining from our fascination with oracular animals is their amazing intelligence and talent could be showing us something of greater value than who’s going to win a soccer match. Octopi are among the most amazing creatures anywhere. A mother octopus tends her hundreds of young with loving care until they’re ready to leave home … and then, exhausted, she settles down in her private den, and quietly passes away. One other thing: octopi aren’t just intelligent; they even appear to have a sense of humor.

All in all, there’s so much more we could divine from our fellow animals in their own worlds. We might even become aware of what they’re trying to tell us every day: that the damage we’re doing to their world and ours will have consequences that it doesn’t take a psychic octopus to predict.