Sunday, May 17, 2015

Why You "Otter" Love Otters.

Everybody loves otters.  Why IS that? 

You otter know why.

Yes, they're cute.  I mean, no matter what kind of otter you're talking about, otters are all adorable.  But I think the reason they pull on our heartstrings is because they are basically an animal that is as close to a Living Cartoon as anything else on this planet.

All otters share a common ancestry with the toons down in Toon Town.

Think about it.  Otters look like they should act like squirrels or something.  Based on their physical constitution, they ought to just swim around, hunt, dig holes and/or run across the street, like all the other woodland mammals we encounter all of the time.  Opossums, raccoons, woodchucks and their kin are known to the laymen as just sort of Robot Animals.  They just Exist and occasionally Eat Something They Shouldn't.  We just coexist with them.  Why don't we just want to coexist with and/or ignore otters?

While all of the animals I've just listed actually have complex ethology and individual personalities, they don't tend to display these things very blatantly.  At first I thought, well maybe raccoons and opossums don't get the credit they deserve because they are mostly nocturnal and we really only see them when they are: sifting through our garbage cans and/or sitting on the side of the road contemplating complicated physics formulas that allow them to come within 0.00005th of an inch of a tire of a car moving at x-velocity (basically, the raccoons and opossums who are really bad at math are the poor souls you see lying on the side of the road, at least in my estimation).

It's scientific fact that many North American mammals are just really bad at math.

But this "we don't understand them because we are asleep when they are awake" hypothesis doesn't really hold water, because it's not very easy to see an otter.  And they are diurnal.  I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen a live North American river otter in the wild, alive.  For the most part, the sightings are very brief.  

Squirrels, chipmunks, woodchucks and other "common" woodland mammals you'd find in your own backyard are way easier to see and observe, and yet we still kind of just brush them off.  So really, to recap, the reasons why we don't really go ga-ga over these guys is NOT because of a) limited viewing, b) too much viewing, and/or c) because we don't have easy access to them.

I just want to know you better!

Just a quick glimpse of an otter and BOOM, everyone falls in love.  Why? Because they do WEIRD QUIRKY CARTOON ANIMAL THINGS.  ALL THE TIME.  You don't have to spend any time at all observing them to see them do things that instantly make you giggle.

One of those things?  How they use their hands.  Yes, their hands.  This even goes for their marine brethren, the sea otter.  They have little cartoon pawhands that they use to grab things, put things away, pick up their babies like Rafiki holds Simba at the beginning of The Lion King.  

Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba!  Or whatever the Zulu words for "Here comes an otter holding a tennis ball" are.

They also don't swim like a normal aquatic mammal.  Look at animals like fisher cats, who are closely related to otters.  Every time I've seen a fisher, it just swims, surfaces to breathe, and dives.  A perfectly respectable spectrum of behavior for an aquatic predator, right?  Yes, of course.


But otters? No, they've gotta add their cartoon flair.  They tumble, turn, roll about, all the while spilling glorious bubbles from their insulating, double-layered fur coat.  They look like they're playing and splashing about, even though they are usually engaged in very serious survival business.  They even breathe through their mouths way more than I think other swimming mammals manage; there is something about watching an otter frolicking in the water and coming to the surface for a gasp of air, giving you a glimpse of their adorable tiny tongue and sharp teeth, as if they don't have TIME to take a good long breath through their nostrils because they are playing too much.

Look.  Look at my cute little mouth.

Each species has its own unique cartoon charm, too.  I've worked with North American and Asian small-clawed otters.  I've written about North American river otters in all of their delightful glory here, but the ASCOs?  Their charm is surely in their capable little alien hands, which I'll get to in a moment.   There are several other species of otters out there, many of which are found in zoos and aquariums and I am just dying to hear stories I'm sure some of our readers are willing to share.

Sea otters? They really blow the Cute Cartoon Animal concept out of the water.  Wrapping yourself in kelp to sleep? Okay, that's pretty cute.  Lying on your back, balancing a rock and smacking delicious sea snacks atop it deftly with anthropomorphic prowess?  Even cuter.  Picking up your baby with both hands and snuggling them? I think I've died and gone to heaven.

How's about holding OTTER HANDS? 

What I'm saying is, otters wear their personalities on their sleeves. It's impossible not to love them, right?

Well, let's address what I'm sure many of you readers who have experience with otters are thinking: Otters Destroy.  

Wait, what, me?

The danger about their in-your-face charm is that it is the biggest lie in the Animal Kingdom.  It's pretty common for people to generally think cute animals are totally incapable of causing injury, death, or mayhem.  I mean, look at dolphins.  People think of them as the Hari Krishna monks of the ocean, completely bastardizing their deeply complicated social behavior repertoire.  But this even goes for animals you'd think are like, no d'uh, dangerous.  Polar bears are one of the deadliest animals on the planet, but they are pretty adorable.  Most of us know better, but some people would probably have no problem giving one a hug (or a Coke).  

Or you could just have otters as pets in the middle of nowhere Scotland.  Seriously, READ THIS BOOK.  It's a memoir about a guy who raised otters in his house and any otter keeper will appreciate it.  Here, let me help you out: BUY THIS BOOK.

But otters? They can disarm any skeptical wildlife viewer.  I think it's not until you actually work with them, or know someone who does, when you realize their deeply dark addiction to Anarchy.  With extremely powerful jaws with crazy bite pressure, a short fuse when it comes to temperament, and a NEVER SAY DIE attitude, otters are a force to be reckoned with regardless of who you are.  Human? Who cares, they can take you down.  A giant crocodile? Whatever, they smile at a challenge (and have been documented harassing and even killing crocodilians, including big.ass.crocs).

Here, check out this Buzzfeed photo essay of a North American river otter killing an American alligator. 

Maybe this is because otters are the perfect balance between predator and prey animals.  They are great predators, but they are not safe from being hunted, either.  They have the confidence of a predator but the razor thin "OH GOD I'M GOING TO DIE I BETTER FIGHT OR FLIGHT" attitude of prey.  Combine these traits and you have the perfect storm: a crazed, terrified animal with very, very powerful predatory physiology.   

Otter mayhem.  Make sure you take time to fully appreciate everything that is happening in this photo.  Oh, and the scruffing? That's a trained behavior (literally the only thing going right in this pic).

Aggressive behavior from otters doesn't happen in zoos and aquariums alone.  It happens pretty often in the wild, especially where humans interface with our fuzzy cartoonish friends.  Sometimes, it's because people are trying to get a good, close snuggle with our mustelid friends.  Other times, it's unknowing victims traipsing through otter territory who receive an unpleasant surprise, like the triathlete who was just doing her own thing, running her race, when all of a sudden she was attacked by a crazed NARO, resulting in hospitalization for her and Just Another Day On The Job for the otter.*

This....could be my next big tattoo

Asian small-clawed otters have another tool in their toolbox for destruction, though.  Yes, they can bite.  Luckily, the three little girls I happen to work with are not very prone to biting.  But what they can do with these little hands is incredible.

Their sense of touch is out of this world.  They use their hands much like raccoons to explore and detect prey items or anything else of interest.  Our three ASCOs use their hands to:

1) Carry ice until it magically disappears
2) Pick up Jello eggs
3) Find All The Cockroaches
4) Check That Crevace Seven Hundred Times To Be Sure There Really Isn't Anything In There
5) Gently hold our hand (OMGGGG talk about adorable)

Pick up Jello Brains that they get for Halloween

and, number 6):  Peeling off concrete or tiles when no Power Tool could do the job.

Their hands and fingers may seem dainty and delicate, but they could probably dismantle Earth if given enough time.  We found this out the hard way when we had to put our ASCO gals in a temporary holding area in a locker room during major habitat renovations.  I mean, we quadruple-checked the otter proofing in this locker room place.  We plugged up every possible hole, bolted down covers over drains, made sure there was no possible place for them to climb, pull apart, or bite. And then....

They cast a spell on us.  Wait, no.

They pulled the tile off of the walls.  Yeah.  The tile that was secure.  The tile that we could not budge.  They got their tiny, Iron Man fingers around one little porcelain square and POP.  Off it came.  Oh, what fun! They did a few more before we had to make some serious changes.  

On the bright side, it did give me a great business idea: let's contact our otters out for house redecorating.  Need to strip your kitchen or bathroom?  Don't want to pay a contractor?  Go to your local zoo and hire out their otter family!  Secure them in your bathroom or kitchen for one (1) day, provide all food and water, and BOOM.  Your room will be completely stripped!**  All we ask is that you let the otters take whatever tokens they'd like with them, since they worked so hard to harvest it.  Great enrichment for the otters, you get work done in an 8th of the time a human could do it, and the zoo makes a little money.  Boom.

Ready to work

For all their delights and terrors, I love me some otters.  And I bet after reading this, you do too.  

* My favorite quote from this woman was, "It just kept coming after me. You never knew where it was going to bite next."  Oh, we know lady, we know.

** Warning: there might be poop.

1 comment:

  1. I would like contract 3 otters please for my kitchen tile job. I am not afraid of poop, and can my favorite trainer come with? Will pay in Jello, "otter paws" ice cream and odd ball musical dvd's. Birds and spouses welcome!