Factory farming octopuses? Hell, no! Laura Lee Cascada joins us to tell us what happened when she found out about a planned octopus farm in Hawaii and how she got to work putting an end to it.
ABOUT OUR GUEST
Laura Lee Cascada (she/her) has led environmental and animal protection campaigns for 15 years, overseeing victories like the protection of Virginia’s decades-long ban on uranium mining with the Sierra Club and putting vegan options on the menus of major chains including Starbucks and Subway with Animal Outlook. In her current role as Sr. Director of Campaigns at the Better Food Foundation, she spearheads campaigns like DefaultVeg, which is making plant-based food the norm at universities, coffee shops, events, and more. Laura is the founder of The Every Animal Project, a powerful storytelling blog with an upcoming print anthology series, showcasing powerful, true animal stories that help transform readers’ relationships with animals. Her investigation of Kanaloa Octopus Farm in Hawaii exposed it as a petting zoo propping up the factory farming industry and led to its eventual shutdown. Laura is also the author of Dellie’s Run, a novel, and her writing has been featured by outlets like One Green Planet, The Dodo, and The Ecologist. She has a master’s degree in Environmental Policy from Johns Hopkins University.
- Every Animal Project website
- Every Animal Project on Facebook
- Laura Lee Cascade on Instagram
- Laura Lee Cascada on X
Mariann Sullivan: Welcome to Our Hen House, Laura.
Laura Lee Cascada: Thank you so much. I'm so excited to be here.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, and I should say welcome back, because, of course, you've been here before, but it's been a long time, and actually, when we decided we wanted to interview you again, there are lots and lots of things we wanted to interview you about, and we can touch on them, but the thing that really intrigued us was this recent campaign regarding the octopus farm. Because it struck me that it's sort of a model for a grassroots campaign, and that I think You know, our listeners, some of them are connected to the movement.
Some of them just want to do something on their own. And I think you have so much to learn here from what you've done. And also you wrote a lot of it down, your different steps in the process. So I really, really want to hear about the octopuses themselves, but I really also want to hear about the technique here.
So I'm excited about it. And you made something really important happen. All right, first of all, before I start, is the plural okay as octopuses?
Laura Lee Cascada: Yes.
Mariann Sullivan: Okay, there seems to be a lot of controversy around it, so I just wanted to make sure I was right. All right, tell us about how you first found out about this place, Kanaloa Octopus Farm.
Laura Lee Cascada: Sure. Well, I was aware first about the controversy that I'm sure many of the listeners are aware of, of the impending octopus factory farm in the Canary Islands. It's been getting a lot of news attention and it's set to slaughter up to about 300, 000 octopuses a year. So that was the first I'd heard about this potential for this new octopus factory farming industry.
My parents actually live on the big island of Hawaii, and I just heard through the grapevine about this small octopus farm that existed there on the island, but it was very different in that it was sort of advertising itself as a tourist attraction. So you could go, you pay basically like a petting zoo, you pay to go in and pet the octopuses and interact with them. I knew at that point that I needed to find out more about what was happening here and why this facility existed.
Mariann Sullivan: Well, yeah. Did you grow up there or your parents moved there later?
Laura Lee Cascada: They moved there about 10 years ago, but we spent a lot of my adolescence kind of going back and forth. We're originally from Virginia, so it's kind of a second home to me.
Mariann Sullivan: Wow, that's amazing. And I'm sure that helped a lot. You know, the more connections you have, as your story tells well, both because of your connections there and your connections within the movement, I think really helped. Okay. So you decided this personal visit was called for, which makes sense.
And so tell us a little bit about it. What did you find out?
Laura Lee Cascada: Yeah, so I basically purchased a tourist ticket like anyone else would do, and went in and filmed what I saw, and anyone could see the things that I saw. I went in and it was about maybe 20 tanks, each one confining an octopus. These tanks were pretty small, like basically the size of a utility sink basin.
Each octopus only had a little cave to hide in and maybe one or two rubber duckies to play with. And the saddest thing to me, I think, was that the tanks were sort of bordered along the top rim, bordered by this astroturf, kind of spiky grass. So every time they would reach an arm out to try to escape, they would hit the astroturf and it might slow them down a little bit long enough for the tour guide to come along and kind of throw their arm back in. And some of them would try many times and eventually the tour guide would just close up the lid so that they couldn't get out. So each one was living a very solitary existence and they all looked pretty afraid. They were trying to hide under their rocks and yeah, just a totally unnatural environment for these sea creatures.
Mariann Sullivan: So what did they tell people that they were doing? People just are consistently confusing about animals. Why anybody would want to go to Hawaii and be in Hawaii and all the things you could do in Hawaii and would want to go see these poor animals living in sinks is beyond me, but so what did they tell people that they were doing that made this interesting to people?
Laura Lee Cascada: So they said that they were a research facility and all over their website, it was all about touting conservation, protecting the species, and really, if you kind of asked enough questions, you could kind of get behind that because on the tour, they would tell us all about the breeding experiments that they would do.
They were talking about how they were trying to figure out how to breed the Hawaiian day octopus. This is a different octopus species than the one who's being farmed over in the Canary Islands. And nobody had quite cracked that breeding cycle yet for this particular species. And so they were talking about how all of their experiments had gotten the babies to live to, at the time, this was last year, early last year. The babies had lived only to about 13 days and they thought this was a huge victory, that they had raised them for that long. And they were trying different sorts of feeding methods, different sort of sea animals, like they were raising hermit crabs to try to feed to the babies, and just trying to figure out how to keep the babies living long enough. And the goal they said was that once they figured that out, it would be a useful tool to reduce the strain on octopus fishing in the wild, so it didn't take long for me to kind of piece together what that meant. If they would be supplying this breeding technology or research to people to be able to farm them that would be able to supply the octopuses as meat so that fewer were caught from the wild.
But I don't think most of the tourists kind of connected those thoughts. They just were really fascinated with meeting the octopuses and touching them and hearing facts about octopuses.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah. Well, people tend not to think too deeply about these issues. That's a really fascinating story that they were telling people and telling themselves, I guess, that there are these wild animals and we love them, and they're being hunted. So that's terrible. So let's breed a bunch of them in captivity and kill them instead.
Like, it's another thing revealing, you know, how people think about animals in all sorts of bizarre ways. All right. So these were called day octopuses, as you pointed out. Are they different than other octopuses? And actually, just in the context of this question, tell us more about octopuses.
Like, who are these animals? I know they are probably the most mysterious animal on the planet. They just look like they're not from this planet. Like, they're just so fascinating. And, you know, people probably are a little familiar about with them because of the movie, My Octopus Teacher, which a lot of people probably have seen.
And that, I think really brought attention on them, but just tell us about them. Who are they? How much do we know about them? And, they're so cool. Like just, just tell us who they are.
Laura Lee Cascada: Yeah, definitely. I really expected my first time meeting an octopus to be, you know, out in the ocean snorkeling or something, especially after seeing My Octopus Teacher and seeing how incredibly complex these beings are. And, you know, while I was watching them and seeing them in real time, like, you could tell that they were sort of contemplating every interaction with the humans who were watching them like zoo animals, because that's basically what it was, but they are extremely smart.
And I think we're only just getting beneath the surface of octopus and generally cephalopod intelligence. There's a lot of stories I've read about octopuses in captivity will actually kind of get to know each of the captors. And if one of them, they're not particularly fond of the captor, I've heard that there was one octopus who would specifically spray water at a specific captor who would come along and not any of the other scientists who were there at this facility, it was just the one.
So they have the ability to identify human faces. They've also been recently documented to dream, it seems, changing color while they're sleeping, which is pretty amazing. They also have, which I think is really important to note, we kind of think of them as solitary animals, and I think that's part of why these facilities justify having them in these tiny tanks each by themselves, but really out in the ocean, they can have really intricate social networks and hierarchies.
Even the males will actually box each other over territory, and so their needs really can't be met in a small, barren tank that's isolated from the entire rest of their species.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah. Wow. They're just so fascinating. You know, I had a conversation recently with somebody who was talking about insect farming. I am going to bring this around and, you know, there's something about the whole insect issue, which I understand. He was a philosopher and talking about all the research that's going into insect sentience.
But sometimes it becomes frustrating because as I said him, I mean, obviously we need to know this, but people don't even care about cows. How the hell are we going to get them to care about insects? And he said, and this is why I think it's relevant to the octopuses, I think sometimes it's easier to get people to care about an animal that they're very unfamiliar with and whom they're not enculturated to just think, well, they're for us, they're for us.
So, even though I think octopuses, you know, especially because of that movie, which reached a lot of people, really are one of those animals that really light people up. Have you found that, like, in dealing with, like the other tourists who were there, that there's something so fascinating about them because they are so different?
Laura Lee Cascada: I think so. I think that people expect these qualities of, you know, intelligence and sentience in obviously dogs and cats and they kind of try to maybe not notice it as much in animals they consume because of the cognitive dissonance and facing that reality is hard for them. But I think when you come across this animal who looks almost alien, and to find out how complex this animal really is, I think it really shocks people because they realize that these qualities are not just uniquely, you know, dog, cat, and human.
There's whole entire worlds out there, and we just really are only on the cusp of understanding these other animals. So I really did see, especially in the children's faces who were there, like really lighting up and connecting with the animals. And of course, these children didn't know kind of behind the scenes what was happening here.
But obviously, there are better ways to connect with octopuses like seeing them in the wild. But I think, yeah, it definitely was an eye opening experience for a lot of people to connect with them.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, it's really interesting. Obviously there are a lot of reasons to do this, but you probably also have a lot of different things you could be working on. Why did you decide to devote time to this?
Laura Lee Cascada: Well, I run a blog called the Every Animal Project. It's sort of my side passion, outside of my day job. And I've really been dedicated for the last several years to telling animal stories on a really individual level, just kind of showcasing their inner lives, the stories that they experience, things that often are really overlooked, like the story of a pig on a transport truck to slaughter, or insects like cicadas, who sort of swarmed my yard one summer a few years ago as they came up from their 17 years underground. And I really just wanted to expose people to these animals they're not really thinking about day to day because I think when you can make that really emotional, more profound connection through writing, it really captivates people.
So I already have that project going and I also really have a strong passion for the oceans and sea life. I'm a free diver and a mermaid, a hobbyist mermaid. So, I obviously already feel really connected to octopuses and other sea creatures. So it just felt like this natural fit to go and see what was going on, especially, you know, right down the road from where my parents lived.
I felt kind of this obligation to get to the bottom of it.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah. And I think that does like, kind of talk to that thought I had that this kind of serves as a model for the kind of campaign that somebody might get interested in working on. You know, that kind of think globally, act locally. This is exactly that act locally. When something happens in your neighborhood, maybe it's up to you to do something about it.
I also wanted to talk to you because the way you did this, and partly because you have connections within the movement, you work within the movement, it just seems like a really wonderful example of combining grassroots and institutional advocacy. And you managed to get a lot of interest from other organizations within the movement, even though you were the centerpiece of trying to make this happen.
So what was the first step? All right, you went to this place, you were like, Oh dear, I have to do something about this. What was your first step in trying to publicize it and getting other people involved?
Laura Lee Cascada: Yeah, well, I had a bit of experience because I've previously worked in undercover investigations in the movement, not as an investigator, but as someone who takes in the evidence from those investigators and reviews it, organizes it, kind of creates a strong case to send to authorities. As well as to send out to the public to alert them to what's going on.
So I kind of already had that knowledge, but it's not a really hard thing to do for anybody, who, you know, has a camera and can visit a place and can, you know, have a little bit of writing skills because basically I conducted the investigation. I took the photos and videos. I made sure to have kind of questions in the back of my mind that I wanted to ask the tour guide to get to the bottom of what was really happening.
The kinds of questions that tourists might not know to ask, but things like, Well, what is the purpose of the breeding? What do you plan to do with the knowledge once you have it? And just really probing to try to get to the bottom of their plans. And then I spent a good amount of time conducting my own research, looking at government records, reading all the news articles I could about this facility, and really just digging into everything that was available out there.
Then I just put it together into my blog, along with the footage and the photos. And I did plan to send it out to media, so when I published it the first time, it was World Octopus Day last year, and that was when I first sent it out to media. I actually didn't get media coverage on the first round, which isn't abnormal, I think, in this movement.
It sometimes can be really hard to break through to media, but that is where kind of the rallying together other groups and other people really helped because as soon as more people and organizations started noticing this and reaching out to the Hawaiian government and we got lots of comments submitted, shortly after that was when we found out that there was a cease and desist letter being issued telling the facility that it needed to shut down because it didn't have the proper permits. And I don't think that would have happened had we not had that big grassroots response, because it would have been easier for the government to just kind of, you know, look away and not really deal with it.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, no, that is, the key. I mean, people can't do things just on their own, but you show the leadership. I mean, you have to just show the leadership so that you can entice these other organizations to say, yeah, we can get involved in this. This is interesting. Somebody's in charge here.
So was it first Compassion and World Farming that got involved?
Laura Lee Cascada: They had originally written a little bit about the farm in their larger octopus farming report, which was one of the ways I had heard about it. So they were one of the ones that started posting about it, as well as Plant Based Treaty, and then all the people from my blog who were tweeting and submitting comments.
And I think between all of these groups and people, that was kind of when the government realized that something was happening that they needed to look into.
Mariann Sullivan: It seemed to me like one of the things that might have awakened the government to the issue, you also got the Harvard Legal Clinic involved too, right? And that's the kind of thing that, you know, legal trouble is, potential legal trouble is the kind of thing that is noticed by local governments.
So how did that come about and what did they do to kind of move things forward?
Laura Lee Cascada: Yeah, so that was, I think, really one of the most crucial pieces. After the cease and desist letter happened, we knew that the facility was shut down to octopus farming for the time being, but we didn't know if they would be able to get the permits that they were missing and reopen. They claimed that was what they were trying to do.
Additionally, I knew that they had at least claimed in some government meeting documents that they were also breeding bobtail squids who weren't visible at the facility, but there were a number of tanks sort of off limits that I guessed that those might be housing the bobtail squids. And those bobtail squids didn't require the same permitting.
So to my knowledge, the facility was continuing to breed those and they had already figured out that breeding process. So they were actually able to profit off of the ink of the squids. So, I was really concerned that this was kind of allowed to continue going on, even though the octopus piece had been temporarily shut down.
And luckily, that's kind of when the Harvard Clinic jumped in. Sentient Media also had a reporter who jumped in, and both groups were basically immediately submitting FOIA requests, trying to collect as much information as they could. They found out a lot of really troubling information.
And then Harvard actually got together a letter with a bunch of cultural practitioners from Hawaii to sign it, which I think is really critical too, because Hawaii has a long, you know, troubled history of Americans coming in and kind of taking over and using resources. And so I think it was really important to include the Native Hawaiians in this effort and to know that they were concerned about this as well.
And I think the issues that Harvard brought to light really forced the state to keep looking into this. Ultimately, the decision wasn't even really a legal one. They just decided not to renew the lease. So we don't actually know what exactly it was that convinced them, but they decided to not renew the lease.
And so the facility had to shut down completely.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, maybe they didn't even know what it was that convinced them. Maybe they just knew, this is going to be trouble. I mean, I just think it's such a great combination of you doing all of the legwork, getting it started, putting it together, and then these organizations feeling comfortable bringing to bear their much greater resources to add.
It did kind of pile on. I'm sure that the work that Sentient Media did was great too, because they're so thorough in doing their investigation and gathering information, so it was really a great synergy of efforts, I felt.
I know that Harvard also got involved in the Thule elk situation in California, which reminds me of this kind of, because it started out as a local, basically wildlife issue that got bigger because other organizations, you know, kind of got involved in it. There's a growing number of animal law legal clinics. Do you think they'll be a good resource in these kind of campaigns? Because they're always looking for cool things for their students to do.
Laura Lee Cascada: I definitely think so. I mean, I had a little bit of legal experience just from, you know, past cases I had worked, but I didn't as an individual have the time and resources to really push on that angle to look up all of the different laws that could have been invoked here and all of the different, you know, submitting all the FOIAs and finding out all the different potential violations.
And I think, you know, this is what they're naturally skilled at and this was a perfect case for them to jump in. I think that that really was what ultimately moved the needle and I would love to see this in many other cases around the country or world for sure.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, I think it's a great, because all of these students also had the opportunity to learn, from doing this. You know, it's probably the first time most of them had done a FOIA complaint. And also it was a victory. There's nothing better in getting students involved and excited than giving them something that they can win at.
I think We Animals was also involved. Is that right?
Laura Lee Cascada: Yes, they were really instrumental in kind of the media exposure piece. They took in my photos and videos and actually featured them in their collection. So now I've become one of their featured photographers, which is such a huge honor for me as somebody who I consider myself an amateur in terms of photography.
But that was really critical in getting more media outlets to see and use the photos. As soon as I had them up there, I was getting more media requests, various groups wanting to also use my photos in their own campaigns, which is great because we don't really have, that I can think of, any other photographic evidence from an octopus farm simply because it's such a new industry that hopefully doesn't grow. Hopefully we don't need to take more photos of it. But I think, just them helping to get exposure for the photos and videos, which are such a key tool in this whole project, was really helpful.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, you had mentioned that in the beginning, you tried to get press and you didn't get anywhere. And, you know, things built and you gathered resources. So tell us what kind of press you ended up getting once you... I mean, I assume that one of the reasons is not only that you had all these photographs, but they were easily accessible on a very accessible website where the press could just grab them and use them.
Was that one of the things that particularly helped? And what else helped? What kind of press did you get and how did you get it?
Laura Lee Cascada: Yeah, so as soon as the cease and desist letter happened, that was when media started to get interested because here was this facility regularly conducting tours for years and suddenly it stopped. So at first it was all of the local Hawaiian outlets. One of my favorite interviews was with a TV channel there and they ran some of my footage, which showed the tour guide admitting that they had these octopus whisperers, as she called them, who would go out and knew how to catch the octopuses and bring them in to be used. And that ran immediately after the owner of the facility had been claiming that they didn't go out and catch octopuses because that was the primary violation they were being cited on was that they didn't have correct permits to be able to go out and catch octopuses from the West Hawaii waters.
But the tour guide literally admitted it right there. And so that aired and I think that really stirred the controversy a lot. And then we got more national and international coverage as other outlets started to connect this to the larger farm in the Canary Islands and kind of cite it as an example of something that was unfolding while this larger debate was happening.
So I think that was really key. This was just kind of like. One micro example of the larger issue and to show that this kind of progress could happen, I think really helped pick up some momentum for the groups that are running the Canary Islands campaign. And so media from all over was then covering the Hawaii closure and not all of it was referencing my investigation, but, it was just great to see it spread so much because I thought that this, you know, when I started, I thought that this was just going to be one little facility that nobody really cared much about, but it turned out to really tie into an international issue.
Mariann Sullivan: That's what's so powerful about it. And I guess, I mean, I guess you can make some predictions about when that's going to happen, but to some extent you just don't know. You have to like, take the opportunities when they present themselves. That footage that you got, did you get that surreptitiously or were they just allowing you to record them saying things that later got them in hot water?
Laura Lee Cascada: Yeah, I, I recorded it all openly, just kind of posing as a normal tourist. I think for me, it would be hard to pose, you know, secretly as an investigator in that way. I've never done that before. But yeah, the places that I visit, I always am just a curious person asking questions and recording and nobody ever questions that.
And I think It just shows that using some, you know, some curiosity and discernment you can kind of really start to get to the bottom of things that they're not openly talking about right on the surface.
Mariann Sullivan: So is this the end? Is it over? Are they fighting it? Are they doing anything else nefarious as far as you know? Do you need to keep an eye on them?
Laura Lee Cascada: I will definitely keep an eye on them, but from what I know now, the owner claimed that they would be pivoting to doing eco tours, where they take people out on boats and watch octopuses. So, as long as that doesn't turn into, like, they're catching octopuses and, like, holding them on the boats, I think that'll be perfectly fine.
So, as of right now, this is the end of this chapter, but I think it really does serve as a really critical example for what could have happened if it had gone forward. They could have created an entirely new factory farming industry for a species who has never been farmed before. And that is what we're about to see in the Canary Island.
So, I think it's really great for folks to use this example and pivot to helping with that campaign or working in their own communities, trying to get bans on octopus farming, which is sort of symbolic. Not every place is going to start opening an octopus farm, but if you can get more of those bans and just showing local governments and state governments and maybe even country governments are taking a stand on this, it'll be a really powerful sort of message to the budding industry.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah. And you know, aside from doing that for octopuses, I tend to feel like this is a model that goes beyond that. I think I alluded to this before, finding a local issue and a particular type of wild animal to focus on and to really bring to the fore, do you think this is an opening to get people's attention or at least get some of them to see animals, in general? You know, is it bigger? See animals in general in a bigger light? Are octopuses and other wild animals, you know, locally beloved for, or whatever, wild animals, kind of the gateway drug animal? You know, we tend to focus on vegan advocacy so much and on getting people to see farm animals as real.
I wonder if it's easier to get them to see a wild animal as real and whether they can spread to a more general attitude about animals. Do you think there's that opening?
Laura Lee Cascada: I certainly hope so. I think that Octopuses are maybe seen as very unique because of their color changing abilities and the new things that we found out about them, but really all animals have these really remarkable traits and abilities that we just haven't really focused on or studied. I think another really great example are fishes and obviously they're the most killed of all the types of animals we eat. We can't even count the number of fish who are killed every year because we just count them in their weight. And I think still people are not really making the connection that fish feel pain, despite that being, you know, so scientifically established now, and we can see them using tools, like using one shell to crack something else open. And so I'm hoping that, you know, getting people to think about Octopuses, which, most people I think would have been okay with maybe trying squid or calamari or octopus when they're on vacation or something.
Maybe they don't eat it regularly, but hopefully now they, after hearing about all of this, they would think twice about that. And yeah, maybe it will be a gateway species for them to start thinking about fishes and then maybe pigs and, chickens and other animals.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, it would be weird to stop eating fish first. Everybody stops eating fish last, but maybe that could happen. I mean, obviously that's not going to be everybody. Not everybody makes the connections, and you mentioned before how fascinated the children were, and it would be nice if, you know, for children, I think their, their minds are more open.
And the idea that this could be the thing that makes them just start thinking about animals in general, I, I think it's possible. There's so much less resistance on people's part to caring about an animal that they don't eat. That you can get in there and they can see them so much more clearly that you don't get that resistance, so I think it's a very powerful campaign. I'm really, really glad you did it.
I'm really glad you told us all about it. I'm really glad you recorded everything, you know, and made it clear like what all the steps were here, because I think this is very replicable activism. And, there's an exciting thing going on in the movement that the organizations are getting bigger and there's a lot more going on at an institutional level, but we also have to keep thinking of ways for the enormous number of grassroots activists in this movement, who don't work in the movement, can be really effective.
I think this is, you happen to be both, but I think this is really an example of the kind of thing that one person can accomplish. So thank you so much for sharing it with us. I, I want to talk to you a little bit more about what you're doing in your day job, but maybe we'll wait for our bonus content to do that because we've taken up enough of your time here.
But thank you so much for telling us about it.
Laura Lee Cascada: Yeah. Thank you so much. And I think you really hit home, you know, that point that it also can just become really overwhelming, I think, when you're trying to tackle all of factory farming and all of the animal abuses in the world and really, you know, doing that day after day and it's hard to see your progress when you're really looking at that massive scale.
So I do really think that focusing in on a local issue that involves animals that can really scale up to connect with larger issues can be really, really powerful. And that's, you know, kind of what I aim to do here. And I hope that it can inspire other people to do similar things.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, I'm really excited about it. I was really looking forward to this interview and I'm really excited to have heard all about it. So thank you so much, Laura.
Laura Lee Cascada: Thank you.
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