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Some visitors are so charmed by The Florida Aquarium’s playful river otters they inquire how they can obtain one for a pet. Marissa Hartley, Aquarium biologist and the otters’ chief caretaker, can understand the sentiment. The aquatic mammal frolics with infectious joy.
But in a recent discussion, Hartley warned that despite its cuddly visage, an otter “has 36 very sharp teeth and has a bite ten times stronger than a dog.” For safety reasons, the Aquarium allows no unnecessary staff contact with its three otters: Otto, Brandon and The Kraken. Hartley stressed, “While the otter is highly trainable, it is not tamable. You definitely should not have one in your house.”
In the wild, the omnivore will eat virtually anything it can get in its webbed paws. That includes fish, crayfish, turtles, lizards, snakes, and even small mammals, which could, if the opportunity occurred, include a housecat or small dog. The otters, Hartley explained, are “incredibly intelligent; they pick up on the smallest association with something or variation from a set routine.” They also are equally independent. According to Hartley, “They have high energy levels but short attention spans. Training must be quick and fun. They will literally walk away from an activity, even if there is food involved, if they get bored.” Unlike the Aquarium’s penguins, “They are not motivated by affection.”
Otter “training” is conducted primarily to encourage behavior that allows the staff to monitor the animals’ health, such as taking blood samples or getting them on scales to monitor their weights, no easy task with the long, heavy-tailed otter. Hartley noted, “The focus is on what will benefit the health plan of the otter.” Training sessions also are designed for enrichment, keeping the inquisitive otters, who love to play and wrestle, happy and active.
Recently, The Florida Aquarium Facebook page posted a delightful video of an obviously amused otter “painting” by leaving pawprints on several canvases. The artwork was a nifty side-effect of accustoming him to approach square shapes (a way to change routine behavior). Each otter also has a different “station” – symbols such as a green dot – to which he has learned to come and stay. In their habitat, the otters see their symbol, but on the visitor’s side, there may be a mustache or a clown nose. This allows guests to take memorable selfies with the otters safely through the Plexiglass. This is far closer than you should ever be to an otter in the wild.
There are occasional reports of wild otters attacking people. A female kayaker was scratched and bitten by an otter on the Braden River earlier this year. However, such encounters are exceedingly rare and may involve a sick or rabid animal. Normally otters, while curious, keep a safe distance from people. Observing the mischievous otters in the wild is always a delight. I first saw one many years ago while canoeing the upper Hillsborough. It swam into a fallen hollow log, and peered through a hole, intrigued but cautious, as we paddled by. Once, as we watched an otter swim from Blue Springs State Park’s boardwalk, my son spotted a small gator lurking in shoreline weeds along the bank. It instantly lunged at the otter, which easily, and gracefully, eluded the attack and then seemed to taunt the disappointed reptile by swirling around him.
While I have seen plenty of otters during the day over the years, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says they are primarily nocturnal. They inhabit rivers, lakes, ponds and fresh water bodies throughout Florida, except for the Florida Keys. They mostly live in burrows along shorelines. They can be legally trapped and hunted in Florida, with a statewide season from December 1 through March 1. It is hard to imagine anyone wanting to harm these wonderful creatures, but they do occasionally wreak havoc on fish farms, and their fur is still considered desirable by some. A few may prove a nuisance to homeowners, getting into garbage cans, but precautions usually will eliminate such problems.
Hartley said otters in the wild live about eight to 10 years. As they slow with age, they become vulnerable to predators, which can include alligators, bobcats, dogs and coyotes. Alas, as with so much of Florida wildlife, cars also take a toll. Otters will cross roads traveling from one water body to another. Hartley also emphasized that plastic bags are a serious threat, as they are to most wildlife. The bags can be ingested by the otters or can entangle them with dire consequences. In human care, Hartley said otters can live 20 years or more, particularly if they enjoy roomy, natural habitat, such as the otter exhibit in the Aquarium’s Wetlands trail.
Otto is the Aquarium’s oldest otter, at 19, and remains in good health. He still likes to wrestle and tear apart boxes with food hidden inside. But now “he plays for 20 minutes and will nap for 40 minutes,” where it used to be the other way around. Brandon, 9, and The Kraken, 4, are far more energetic. Otto is originally from Colorado. His origins are unclear, but he apparently was born in the wild and probably came under human care early, perhaps after losing his mother. He could not be returned to the wild.
That was the case with Brandon, who was discovered as an abandoned pup in his namesake community. According to Hartley, someone reported to the Aquarium that they had found something “brown, furry and that looks like he belongs in the water, probably because of his web feet.” Hartley said, “An animal keeper took care of him 24-7, bottle-feeding him.” Brandon thrived, but “because he has spent so much time with humans, he was unreleasable.” The Kraken was born in a Bridgeport, Connecticut zoo.
Hartley likened the trio to brothers: “They sleep together, hang out together, but every once in a while, they find something to fight over.” They always quickly make up and clearly enjoy each other’s company. Elder stateman Otto is paternalistic and “taught the others how to be otters.” For instance, when the Aquarium gives the otters palm limbs and other vegetation, the younger Brandon and The Kraken play with them in the water. “Otto demonstrates that if you put it in your den, you can sleep on it,” Hartley explained. “He also taught the others how to wrestle.”
Hartley called Brandon “the quirkiest of the lot. Whenever there is a large group, he has burst of energy. We called it the ‘zoomies.’ It is almost like he is showing off.” The Kraken is a virtual nonstop whirl of action. Trapping, pollution and habitat loss threaten the otter population in many states, but Florida’s numbers seem to be holding steady. That is good news for more than just the otters. Hartley said, “Otters are a sign of clean water and a healthy ecosystem with plenty of creatures.”
Plus, they are just plain fun to watch.
Story by Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune