Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Portrait of the North American River Otter

The North American river otter (NAROs) can best be described as the Poster Child for ADHD. Not only do these adorable mustelids* have an admirably terrifying ability to move at speeds that register on speedometers as "blurry", but they have bite pressure that leaves pit bulls feeling embarrassed.

So why are they one of my favorite animals?  Well, look above! They are extremely cute, especially when they sleep...and sleep...and sleep...

After a busy 15 seconds of swimming 60 laps in a pool, digging 19 holes in the sand, rearranging logs, standing on hind limbs to catalog every scent detectable within a 10 mile radius, NAROs find themselves awfully sleepy.  Similar to my own sleeping behavior, NAROs essentially pass away when they fall asleep.

I enjoyed walking into the exhibit of the slumbering two older NAROs at one of the aquariums I worked at.  Cooper (pictured above) was a slightly lighter sleeper than his older and larger roommate, Webster.  Cooper is also partially paralyzed thanks to an unwary driver twelve years ago, so as he begins to greet my presence with a toothy yawn, he wiggles his shoulders and begins to slide his chubby self towards me and his food.  

If I was lucky enough to rouse Webster from sleep, it was the only time I can recall that he did not exhibit the classic hyperactive insanity that is prevalent in otters of any species.  Like a sleepy teenager, he lifts his head before his little eyes open.  I suppose he is sniffing around to ascertain if whatever has rudely ignored his seventh nap of the day is worth acknowledging.

Webster's sleepy eyes slowly open, revealing not the deep, bright eyes of your alert otter, but cloudy, How-Did-I-Get-Here eyes commonly seen in 20 year old males illegally frequenting college bars.

Should he decide to participate in whatever I had planned for the session, he would slowly walk to me and eat his first few fish begrudgingly.  But if I'm being honest, Webster often gave me the cold shoulder.  Even if his favorite fish was offered within millionths of a millimeter of his sensitive nose, he would dramatically throw his head in the opposite direction, purposely saunter to the water's edge, and wash his face.   Toilette routine complete, he'd slide into the water and swim to the furthest point away from me and face away from me until I left.

After their recharge naps, NAROs become loose cannons.  They are very intelligent, very fast, and easily startled.  It is the disadvantage to working with an animal that is both predator and prey.  Their predatory cunning and problem-solving make them wonderful training subjects and delightful to watch on their own time.   Their paranoia that at any time, Scary Noises May Eat Them make them relatively perilous to handle.

The latter is often lost on the Average Joe.  Average Joe is disarmed at first look at the NARO's large, cartoonish nose, their beady yet expressive eyes, and their fat rolls.  Instead of killing machines that can shred muscle tissue in seconds, NAROs are Pillow Pets.

It is easy to warn guests to enjoy observing NAROs from a safe distance.  Guests are not usually keen on smooching a wild animal (albeit a cute one) whose bite pressure is pound-for-pound the same as a wolverine's.  They are content to acknowledge NAROs as wild animals and go on their way.   The same cannot be said about Movie Crews.

I was put in charge of working with two female NAROs (Bella and Bogey) who were slated to become movie stars.  The night before the second unit camera crew was supposed to get footage of our resident NAROs for the Movie That Shall Not Be Named Due to Copyright Infringement I Barely Understand But Still Signed the Contract, I was informed that the gargantuan camera and its equally massive crane would be dipping into (and REMAINING in) the otter exhibit at otter-eye-level to obtain shots.

This is essentially what the 3D camera and crane looked like, except the camera had a massive, rectangular housing around it and about one zillion more cables and wires.

Flabbergasted, I responded with a professional "UH, NO" and confidently informed the second unit crew that Bella and Bogey would have absolutely no problems rushing over to the camera, up the crane, chew through all of the wires three times, and unscrew 58% of the machine's hardware in 0.75 seconds.

"But," the second unit director rebutted.  "We can pull the camera and crane back in five seconds."

"In five seconds," I replied.  "Your multi-million dollar camera will be completely destroyed and the otters will be halfway to the Bahamas."

No one believed me.  They were understandably frustrated, because they had planned on getting a certain kind of shot.

"Can't you train them to stay away from the camera?"  No.  The camera is shiny.
"Can't you just lure them with food away from the camera?"  No.  The camera is shinier than the food.

I desperately tried to make them understand: Otters are drawn to new objects in ways that can be predicted in physics.  Newton's Fourth Law of Motion states: 

"Every shiny object in the presence of an otter tends to remain the sole object of said otter's attention unless presented another shiny object, or the otter is abducted by aliens."

Still nothing.  Several well-known animal trainers-turned-movie-people attempted to help me articulate my point.  There was no feasible way to build an impenetrable shield (think a giant squirrel-dome on a bird feeder) over the crane and camera housing, and there was no way to get the camera down far enough to get the shot they thought they needed.  The older otters who would not be able to jump onto the camera couldn't be involved, because they were in the wrong habitat and it wasn't possible to move them.

We were at a standstill.  I peered down at Bella and Bogey who already were perched on their large back feet and chubby tails.  They chirped curiously at the group of people huddled around the equipment near their habitat.  It was easy to understand their otter conversation:

Bella: Chirp.  Chirp.  Chirp.  (If they dip that Shiny Thing in here, I'm going to run headlong at it and jump three feet into the air, grab onto the housing with my paws, pull myself up, and look at my reflection in the camera lenses for a second and try to bite them, then I'm going to crawl around the top of the camera housing, biting through whatever cords get in my way.  At that point, you will be clear to jump on the camera housing too. I'd suggest that I take the top part of the crane and I'll aim for the guy with the mustache.  You can crawl up the underside of the crane and aim for the guy in the khaki shorts.  You can chew on any of the cables that are in your way.  I'll stick with the ones that are in my way.)

Bogey: Chirp. (Sounds great. Where should we meet for naptime?)

We were all quiet.  I ran through every scenario I could think of to come up with a solution that would be safe for everyone involved but still allow the camera crew to get the shots they needed.  

Me and the other animal/movie guys were stumped.  I finally said, "You absolutely cannot put the camera down into the exhibit that far.  That is the fact.  I can't risk an otter escaping or anyone, person or otter, getting hurt.  Nor can I risk your camera equipment getting damaged.  These animals look like they sleep all day, but they are really, really smart, and they are really, really fast."

I paused.  "They are like wolverines on Red Bull."

Apparently, this highly educated phrasing was enough to sway popular opinion to my side.  

"Really?" the camera operator said. 

My minority of supporters chimed in in support, suddenly recalling countless stories of NAROs causing permanent damage to handlers' film and set equipment within a period of seconds.  Slowly, we gained ground.  

The next day, we figured out how high to hold the camera to get decent shots and be out of the jumping distance of Bella and Bogey.  The otters did very well with their required tasks, but spent a lot of time checking out the camera and testing how high it was.  We were all very pleased at the end.

How did the footage turn out?  Check out the scene in Dolphin Tale!  

The author with Bella

*Mustelidae includes: weasels, sea otters, river otters, and Lindsay Lohan


  1. No way, I JUST wrote a blog post yesterday about otters! The are adorable, it's true! I enjoyed reading this post so much, because 1. It is an amazing story and I loved the way you handled the situation (with a little added humor) and 2. because it had me laughing so much! I'm looking forward to reading your future posts, as well, and learning how to handle such situations and other "trainer-knowledge" from you!

  2. Aren't skunks in mephitidae, not mustelidae?

    1. Good call! Thanks for the comment. Your question prompted me to look this up since I'd learned they were mustelids. But you were right!