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Octopuses are smart, playful and emotional in ways humans haven’t begun to understand until recently – just as companies are about to farm more of them than ever for food

In May, 2019, Jennifer Mather, one of the world’s leading octopus researchers, travelled from her home in Lethbridge, Alta., to False Bay, South Africa. The producer of a new documentary, Craig Foster, who had been reading her research papers, sought her expert opinion on footage of an octopus he had been following for a year.

Over the course of 10 days, they played through clips in a studio in the director’s home overlooking the ocean. Dr. Mather saw the little octopus reaching out a delicate tentacle to inspect a human hand. Sprinting to its den, startled by sudden movement. Bouncing around with a school of fish – just, it seemed, for fun. For the University of Lethbridge professor, the scenes confirmed her long-held theory: “Octopuses live their whole lives on the edge between curiosity and fear.”

But then, Dr. Mather watched the octopus, trapped too far from the safety of her den and hunted by a hungry shark, execute a brave and ingenious strategy: She somehow managed to suction herself to the back of her most fearsome predator, while the shark swam around, befuddled by dinner’s sudden disappearance.

“I have never seen an octopus do that,” Dr. Mather says, the awe still electrifying her voice over Zoom from her university office this spring. ”What do we really know about the octopus? Nothing.”

The footage in South Africa became the film My Octopus Teacher, which won an Oscar. But long before an international audience was captivated by the movie’s charismatic star, Dr. Mather and her peers have been trying to crack the mystery of an animal that researchers like to say is the closest we may ever come to meeting an alien life form.

The octopus has already challenged our theories on evolution, intelligence and consciousness. It has proven itself smarter, more playful, more feeling than we ever imagined. You can devote decades to studying how and where the octopus lives and, as Dr. Mather will attest, still be surprised by what you learn.

Here is a creature, marvellously cunning and elegant, living in a space so vast and deep, so foreign to human experience, that we still mostly peer into the dark and wonder. Surely, such a creature is worthy of careful consideration?

“Yes, yes!” Dr. Mather says. “A thousand times, yes.”

And yet, no. We have plowed ahead, trying to tame the wildness of the octopus for our own ends. In many countries, including the United States (though not Canada, thanks to a small, prescient committee, including Dr. Mather, who advocated early for its welfare), the octopus can be used in experiments without standards and procedures to ensure its care. A Spanish company is pushing forward with plans to open the first commercial octopus farm in the Canary Islands; research continues apace in places such as Japan and Mexico to raise and domesticate the animal for profit.

Never mind that a loud and angry chorus of scientists, environmentalists and philosophers say that octopus farming can’t ethically – or humanely – be done. Last November, a London School of Economics study, funded by the British government, concluded that “high-welfare octopus farming is impossible.” A campaign to stop octopus farming continues in the European Union. Animal-welfare advocates in countries such as Britain and Canada are calling for a pre-emptive ban on the import of farmed octopus, to close the market doors before they open.

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Animal-rights groups protest outside municipal offices in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain, the planned site of the largest octopus farm in the world.Borja Suarez/Reuters

I never really thought much about the octopus, until I started seeing essays by scientists vehemently opposed to farming and began researching their objections for a story.

My favourite film version was not the Octopus vulgaris, or common octopus, of the Oscar-winning documentary, but the diaphanous cephalopod-like aliens, Abbott and Costello, who work so hard to communicate with Amy Adams in the movie Arrival to warn humans away from an apocalyptic future.

But the more I learned about the octopus, the more I fell in awe of it. The more outrage I felt about the idea of farming it, the more shame for my own species.

This was another example of us failing, yet again, to adopt the precautionary principle, to put the interests of an animal above our own, to avoid causing harm to a life we don’t fully understand.

The existence of the octopus makes you think differently, not just about eating and farming animals, but our relationship to them, our assumptions about them, and what this all says about us, the humans, languishing so pridefully on our animal kingdom throne.

Much like Abbott and Costello, what we learn from the octopus, our resident earthly alien, is really a warning to change our ways.

Octopuses, like the Graneledone verrucosa shown at Bear Seamount in the North Atlantic, are so alien-looking to humans that they sometimes inspire the design of fictional creatures from space, like the ‘heptapods’ that Amy Adams tries to communicate with in the 2016 film Arrival. NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Deep Connections 2019; Paramount Pictures

Humans have a long-standing bias for “cuddlies,” to use Dr. Mather’s nomenclature. We see furry mammals as smarter and cuter than slimy sea creatures, feel more morally responsible for their care, and apply more rules to their welfare. This doesn’t stop us from eating the cuddlies, of course. Or ignoring the fact that the pork chops and chicken drumsticks we buy in the grocery store begin with animals raised in often terrible conditions – a self-serving myopia that psychologists call the “meat paradox.”

But pretending that juicy steak wasn’t once a doe-eyed cow is, for many of us, a tolerable mind game. You’d probably be horrified, however, to boil a rabbit alive on the kitchen stove, the way we do lobsters. Or turn a pig inside out to kill it, which is how fished octopuses are sometimes dispatched.

That’s because, despite growing evidence to the contrary, it’s been convenient to assume that aquatic invertebrates aren’t sentient – that they don’t feel. An animal that doesn’t feel can’t experience pain. It doesn’t care if you hang it in the air and let it suffocate – another way that octopuses are sometimes killed. To paraphrase Kristin Andrews, a philosophy professor at York University and York Research Chair in Animal Minds, feelings in animals make the moral world more complicated.

So along comes the octopus, luminous ambassador to the underestimated invertebrate, to complicate our world. The LSE study found that the octopus, along with other cephalopod mollusks such as the squid and cuttlefish, and decapod crustaceans, such as lobster and crabs, should be considered sentient, and was thus entitled to animal-welfare protection. Freed from EU constraints after Brexit, the British Parliament passed a law making that official in April.

Sentience doesn’t require an animal to be self-aware. But it does open the door to levels and types of consciousness. Most experiments into animal sentience have tested for pain, but scientists are increasingly studying positive emotions as well. If an animal can feel pain, why can’t it feel joy?

In the LSE study, the octopus was the star; a team of researchers led by philosopher Jonathan Birch found “very high evidence of sentience.” Maybe that seems obvious if you’ve seen My Octopus Teacher, but in fact it’s a finding that further quashes some long-standing beliefs about invertebrates in general. Once we agree these animals have the capacity to feel, we are forced to consider their interests beyond conservation to include their ”psychological welfare,” as a pair of American philosophers argue in the journal Animal Sentience with a 2020 paper titled Minds Without Spines.

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This octopus has snatched a dishwashing brush during a spring cleaning at the Sea Life aquarium in Timmendorfer Strand, northern Germany, in 2019.FRANK MOLTER/AFP/Getty Images

The octopus pokes holes in a few other anthropocentric theories. Charles Darwin described evolution as a tidy tree; scientists today argue it’s more like a thicket, with tangled branches of DNA. But in any event, the creature that would become the octopus hasn’t been found in our part of the thicket for more than 600 million years. Our last common ancestor was a primitive worm-like creature, and from there the octopus went its own way, in the darkness of the deep sea. That’s another reason the alien metaphor works: The octopus really did evolve in a different way, and on a different Earth than the one we know.

There’s a great line in Peter Godfrey-Smith’s thought-provoking 2016 book, Other Minds, that explores the octopus and the origins of consciousness: “If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings,” he writes, “it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over.”

And what a mind evolution built. The octopus didn’t just survive in a hostile environment. It thrived. For the past several decades, as Dr. Mather explains, the dominant theory of intelligence has been that animals get smart by navigating complex social interactions. Loners, she says, were assumed to have limited intelligence.

But the octopus is about as far from social as a smart animal can be. Confine two together, and one of them is likely getting eaten. The parents don’t hang around either: The male dies shortly after mating, and the female lays her eggs and dies around the time her babies hatch. The octopus prefers a solitary life, although its confirmed loner status has been recently challenged by the discovery of two groups of gloomy octopuses, or Octopus tetricus, living near each other off the coast of Eastern Australia. (Typical of the octopus, what we think we know may not apply to all 300 species, yet alone those scientists have yet to discover.) Still, Octopolis and Octlantis aren’t exactly friendly communities; the residents chase, fight and evict weaker neighbours from their homes. Scientists aren’t sure why they risk life and limb to live in close proximity – perhaps it’s for the plentiful local stock of clams and scallops.

An octopus is born with innate survival skills, including the ability to change colour and feed itself. But the survivors still have to figure out life in a dangerous place with no parental guide, no peer role model, and no built-in body armour to deflect shark teeth. (Having eight arms that grow back – another incredible trait – does leave some room for error.) Octopuses, at least the kind most studied, also have pretty short lives – a year or two for Octopus vulgaris, and a few more for larger ones, such as the Giant Pacific – so time is of the essence.

Dr. Mather is part of an international team of scientists currently working on a theory of octopus intelligence. They are only one year into a multiyear project, but she surmises that it will be more ecological in nature – the octopus got smart by going on risky, solo adventures and by being curious about the world.

That should be humbling. Perhaps it might inspire an instructional instance of human curiosity: Should we assume dominion over an exceptional brain that developed parallel to our own, in a foreign place and against the odds? Do we too often assume that thinking differently means thinking less?

“We humans tend to think we are the best thing around,” says Bruce Robison, a marine biologist and senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, wryly observing the obvious when we discuss octopus intelligence. “Well, that depends on your perspective. We are not necessarily at the top of the heap when it comes to solving problems about how to exist on Earth.”

“I wouldn’t expect an octopus to drive a car,” Dr. Robison says. “But on the other hand, I would have a hard time, moving into the octopus’s habitat, and opening clams for lunch.

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Marie-Claire Louis holds her octopus catch in the lagoon around Rodrigues Island, northeast of Mauritius, in 2007. Stocks were badly depleted before the early 2010s, when authorities and fishers began closing the fishery voluntarily for part of the year.Ed Harris/Reuters

“Have you heard about the coconut shell-carrying octopus?” Dr. Mather asks me during one of our Zoom calls. “Well …” This particular octopus was observed by researchers carrying two halves of a coconut shell, as it went hunting for crabs – a trip that took it far from the cover of its den. Out in the open, the octopus would conceal itself under the shells, hiding from sharks. It planned ahead to bring protection and camouflage. It had prepared for the future. And it used a tool, a skill that requires sophisticated thinking.

Or how about this one? Dr. Mather and a colleague wanted to test, in a lab setting, whether an octopus would engage in play. The filter in one of the tanks created a small current, so they floated a pill bottle where it would drift toward the octopus. Of the six octopuses, two used their spray to push the pill bottle back and forth. One of them did it more than 20 times, like a game of catch. “I am never going to know for sure whether an octopus is having fun,” she says. “But I do know that it does things that we think are fun when we do them.”

Dr. Mather has been obsessed with octopuses since she first began studying their behaviour in the 1970s. The moment she knew she was observing a special animal happened on a snorkelling research trip in Bermuda, early in her career. She watched an octopus collect shells and bring them back, one by one, stacking them at the opening of its den, a crevice in a rock. Then it slipped inside, shells suctioned to its arms, shaped them into a door and went safely to sleep.

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An octopus approaches a jar of food at a science museum in Virginia Beach, Va.Steve Earley/The Virginia Pilot/AP

In labs, the octopus has passed a number of tests designed by humans. It can navigate mazes, sensing and interpreting the world with its resourceful arms. It can open a jar, and remember the trick of it some time later. If you zap it in one corner of the tank – a test to see if the octopus feels pain – it will remember to avoid that place in the future.

But some of the best stories are the great escapes. Jean McKinnon, a marine biologist at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, regaled me with an entire cast of octopus characters who made a run for it at the marine centre where she studies them.

There was Sid, who vanished for five days, and was eventually found in a floor drain after someone spotted an errant arm; researchers suspected he was looking for a mate, and released him back into the wild on the eve of Valentine’s Day. Houdini, with an arm span of nearly two metres, was discovered one evening, sloshing up the steps toward the second-floor staff kitchen. On another occasion, researchers noticed rock lobster disappearing from an aquarium tank. A caretaker who showed up early for his shift one evening caught the stealthy cephalopod culprit; he’d been sneaking out when the place was empty, grabbing dinner and returning to his tank, with none the wiser.

Octopuses can squeeze through tiny crevices in their tanks; the only hard part of their body is their beak. At the New Zealand aquarium, researchers used duct tape, bricks and plastic lids to block holes, and were often outsmarted.

“If you’ve got an octopus,” Dr. McKinnon says, “you spend most of your life to keep them in their tank.”

Researchers who study octopuses in the lab describe how the animals watch them from behind the glass, figuring out the human routines, and telling different staff apart, even if they’re wearing the same white lab coats. Octopuses prefer darkness; in Dunedin, one famously learned to smash lights with a targeted spray of water. Another took an apparent dislike to the staffer who was often assigned to clean his tank. If the other researchers, including Dr. McKinnon, walked by, the octopus ignored them. But this one staffer would get a blast of water in the back of her neck. Dr. McKinnon speculates that the octopus perhaps identified her by the vibration of her footsteps on the ground.

Smart, creative, problem-solving and able to plan ahead, the octopus has an impressive résumé. It is, at least, as smart as our dogs, though its talents differ. Some of the tests it fails may just not make any sense to it. For instance, the octopus, like many clever animals, has not so far passed the mirror test; it gets angry at its own reflection. But Dr. Mather suggests that may just be because the animal doesn’t use its eyes in the same way we do – yet another riddle that researchers are still figuring out.

For me, the most reverentially awesome story about the octopus is the one that Dr. Robison and his team discovered, completely by chance. They were out on the ocean, doing research, when their remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, happened upon a deep-sea octopus – the Graneledone boreopacifica – protectively guarding 150 or so freshly laid eggs, about 1,400 metres down, on a rocky outcrop in the Monterey Submarine Canyon.

They knew roughly when she started because the spot had been empty during a dive the previous month. So they decided to keep checking on her. Every so often, while boating over her location, they sent the ROV down to observe on camera, from a careful distance, how she was faring.

Again and again, they went back, expecting her to be gone, her progeny hatched. But she was always there, in the same place, latched onto the rock face like a climber trapped on the side of mountain, her arms curled over her eggs. She never appeared to eat, and there was no sign that she took a break. They watched her swat away a persistent army of crabs; they returned to find crab carcasses strewn around her.

Over time, Dr. Robison says, the team began to lose scientific objectivity; they worried about her when they were back on land, cheered from the control room when the camera showed she had endured.

“She was attempting something that humans strive for as well,” he says, “protecting her young, making an investment, exhibiting parental care.”

Aside from offering her a piece of crab meat, which was refused, they did not interfere. But she was slowly dying, sacrificing herself to keep her eggs safe. Her skin began to sag. Her eyes turned cloudy. And still week after week, month after month, year after year, she hung onto that rock. Until one day, the camera found only an empty spot, the eggs cracked open, the babies gone. It was almost a relief, Dr. Robison says: “She had finally finished her job.”

When the team published the paper in 2014, they named her Octomom. She guarded her future offspring for four years and five months – more than three times longer than the egg-brooding period of any known animal. In that time, a human child would have been born and gone off to senior kindergarten. A robin, by comparison, sits in her nest for about two weeks.

I think about Octomom, hanging onto that rock, all alone. About her ferocious devotion. All those years, passing by.

And we would never have known about her, except that Dr. Robison and his team happened to toss a camera like a random pebble into the ocean, in the right time, at the right place.

What else don’t we know?

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An octopus-shaped kite flies at the Fanoe International Kite Festival in Rindby, Denmark, on June 16.BO AMSTRUP/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images

On YouTube, there is a video of a floating octopus languorously reaching out its arms like a dancer. It stretches slowly, until it resembles a hot-air balloon drifting in the air. The pose is held for brief seconds, before the octopus goes back to looking like an octopus. I have watched the video dozens of times; it is mesmerizing.

Who says the octopus is not an artist?

Of course, I have committed the classic error: I am attaching human characteristics to a non-human animal. I am seeing emotions where there may only be instinct. But is that wrong, if it makes us lean toward caution and care?

We often categorize other animals as different, or less-than, to conveniently justify the way we treat them. Increasingly, we are learning that our assumptions are mistaken, especially for the ones we previously underestimated. Not just octopuses and lobsters, but bees, fish and spiders. On the whole, science is proving that the world around us is a lot smarter, and more feeling, than we humans have long assumed.

One observation that Dr. Mather makes seems particularly salient to how we think about the octopus. In the lab, there are lazy and playful octopuses; some are chill, others are grumpy. Only two of the six subjects wanted to play with the pill bottle; the rest just seemed irritated by it. In other words, octopuses have personalities. In fact, Dr. Mather tells me, one of the earliest papers to suggest that non-human animals had personalities was about the octopus.

“In some ways, personality is just as important as thinking about whether animals have intelligence and sentience,” she says. Then you have to stop thinking about the octopus, and start thinking about an octopus.

The octopus becomes not a something, but much closer to a someone. And would we lock thousands of someones into small, empty tanks where they’d be stunted by boredom, just to fatten them up so their marinated arms can be served in a seafood salad?

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Octopus for sale after an auction at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market in 2006.Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

This question – should animals be considered someones and not somethings – is not only philosophical or moral. It is becoming a legal issue as well, especially as we grow increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of caging and displaying smart animals for our own purposes.

In New York, a recent case on this very question revolved around Happy, an elephant living at the Bronx Zoo. An animal-advocacy group called the Nonhuman Rights Project argued that Happy, as an intelligent animal, was being illegally detained at the zoo, citing habeas corpus, which protects an individual against unlawful imprisonment. In June, the New York Court of Appeals, in a 5-2 ruling, rejected the argument, finding that the “liberty rights” of habeas corpus only applied to humans. The elephant may be staying in the Bronx, but the case is still seen as an important moment in the debate about the rights of animals.

Meanwhile, in Ottawa, a new animal-welfare bill known as the Jane Goodall Act reflects another shift in our relationship with the wild world. The legislation, now making its way through the Senate, would create new legal protections in Canada for wild animals in captivity, such as big cats, wolves, bears and sea lions; eventually phase out captivity entirely for elephants; and prevent wild animals from being used in performances for entertainment.

The legislation doesn’t go as far as defining animals as “someones,” but it does give them limited legal standing in court during sentencing. And it includes a notable preamble that refers to “an Indigenous understanding that all life forms of Creation are interconnected and interdependent,” and that “science, empathy and justice require everyone to respect the biological and ecological characteristics and needs of animals.”

The bill covers more than 800 wild species. The octopus isn’t on the list, but the legislation expressly allows the federal cabinet to add more animals in the future.

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Octopus cooks, or pulpeiros, work in in Carballino, Spain, in 2018 to set a new world record for the biggest octopus tapa. This traditional Galician dish involves boiling the octopus in copper pans, cutting them into bite-sized pieces and seasoning them with olive oil and paprika.MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP/Getty Images

From a human point of view, the common octopus is a good candidate for farming. It grows quickly and lives only a year; its meat is protein-rich, and has a culinary flare that makes it sought after by gourmands, who will pay a good penny for it. Once the logistics are figured out, domesticating octopuses will be easier and cheaper than hunting wild ones.

But there are many more reasons why rushing ahead is such a queasy, unsettling prospect.

Farming an aquatic species doesn’t necessarily reduce pressure on wild stock – often, it just creates a larger market. Octopuses are hard to raise in captivity, and they don’t like to share close space with each other. They have soft bodies that are easily injured, and sharp minds that need activity. They are carnivores, which means taking another species out of the ocean to feed them. According to the LSE study, there is no scientifically validated way to slaughter them in large numbers “that is both humane and commercially viable.”

“It is one thing to hunt them in the wild,” Dr. Andrews says. “It is another thing to create a slum and force them all together and then kill them. That is a horrific science-fiction nightmare.”

Under what conditions does a life matter? What level of feeling and sentience must be met for us to just walk away, and leave an animal to live and evolve on its own?

Watching My Octopus Teacher for the second time, I felt a different kind of empathy for the octopus – one less framed around my humanness, and more by its otherness. The octopus never sought a human fan club; it just wants to be an octopus. We are intruding, without permission.

So much of our connection to animals starts, and ends, with us: We admire elephants, so we put Happy in a zoo; we pollute an animal’s environment, so we have to save them; we are curious about how they compare to humans, so we study them; we want to eat them, so we farm them, even while we claim to love them. After the documentary won the Oscar, the place where it was filmed was designated a protected area for octopuses; good news, to be sure, but let’s not forget from whom the octopus needs protecting.

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A baby octopus at Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park in Hawaii.National Park Service, Ashley Pugh/AP

What ultimate talent must an octopus demonstrate, what test must it pass, for us to just let it be an octopus? When I pose this question to University of Toronto anthropology professor Naisargi Dave, she quotes to me the famous line: “A master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” As long as we test the octopus against human measurements, we will never let it be free.

Even our love, Dr. Dave points out, makes the animal’s life about the strength and sustainability of our caring attention: “What does that mean for ethics if it requires us to care about everything first?” she asks. “Because that is just impossible. We cannot care about everything.”

Instead, she advocates for a “respectful indifference” based on a kind of ethics of the moment – a subject she explores in a book coming out next year: “Sometimes the octopus needs our attention, most of the time it doesn’t.” We would be aware and attuned to animals, but not need to know or possess them.

Dr. Dave also helps me resolve another moral conflict: Why the octopus, and not the cow? The other week, I saw octopus arms poking out of a container of insalata di mare at the local Metro, and my stomach turned over; and yet, a few days later, I ate a steak, barely thinking about the animal that it used to be.

“The tyranny of consistency has one goal,” she tells me, “and that is to make people tired.” It becomes too complicated to defend one, imperfect choice, so we accept the norm out of weariness. Take action, even inconsistently, she argues, and the ideology may follow after.

So the question isn’t why care about the octopus when we are already so far down the path with the cow. Ask instead: What larger ideology might develop from a decision to draw a line here and now, for this one extraordinary animal?

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An octopus hides in rocks off the coast of Jounieh, Lebanon, in 2018.IBRAHIM CHALHOUB/AFP/Getty Images

The octopus is both reckoning and reminder. The perks of being at the top of the animal pile come with responsibilities: to treat nature carefully and respectfully, to avoid unnecessary harm, to be sustainable in our actions. That shouldn’t be such a daunting task for the most thinking, feeling animal of them all. And yet, here we are.

In her dissent of the court’s finding of Happy’s fate, Judge Rowan Wilson made a poignant argument that we should recognize the elephant’s right to liberty not only because she is a wild animal never meant to be locked up in a zoo, but “because the rights we confer on others define who we are as a society.”

Those decisions too often become injustices that need correcting. As Victoria Shroff, a prominent animal-law lawyer in Canada, points out, in a few decades, we will likely look back on our current laws around the treatment of animals, shake our heads and ask ourselves: What were we thinking?

The octopus is still revealing itself to us, and the more we learn, the more remarkable it becomes. Domesticating this wondrous creature into what seems certain to be captive misery is a mistake that we haven’t yet made. Would we factory-farm pigs the way we do, knowing now how intelligent they are?

The pending fate of the octopus suggests, sadly, that we would. Even though, of all animals sharing the planet, the octopus may have the most to teach us about humility and possibility – about what we’ve gotten wrong, and how we can do better.

For our sake, as much as theirs.

The ethics of food: More from The Globe and Mail

The Decibel

For Food Week, a special series on the Decibel podcast, Erin Anderssen discusses what she’s learned about octopuses and the ethics of eating them. Subscribe for more episodes.


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