Thursday, December 20, 2012

On Seeing a River Otter

This morning while on a bicycle ride through the “wilds” of suburban Sarasota I had the pleasure of watching an adult River Otter (Lutra canadensis) lope across Cooper Creek Parkway in front of me.  The otter came out of a wetland to the south (right on this aerial image) and then run to the median of the road.  There, as he attempted to cross the road and continue north he encountered some traffic that convinced him that crossing the road was a life-limiting activity.  Wisely he turned around and went back to the artificial wetland.  I was lucky and got to watch him twice.

The yellow pin shows the location of today's River Otter sighting.  Not exactly in the middle of the wilderness

Normally and usually people think of River Otter’s as being somewhere in the wilderness of the north woods of America but as the aerial image above demonstrates this River Otter is living large in a heavily urbanized area with an Interstate Highway just a few yards to the west.

I became fascinated with River Otters quite early in my life.  I think it all started with a television show on the “Wonderful World of Disney” that aired every Sunday night at 6:30 p.m. when I was a kid.  One Sunday the show aired an episode titled “One Day at Teton Marsh.”  A part of the episode included following a family group of River Otters as they played and fished and just generally goofed off in the wetlands of Grand Teton National Park in northwestern Wyoming.  The program left me fascinated with River Otters which, at the time, I had never seen in the wild.  I made it a goal to make sure that I saw one.  I visited Grand Teton National Park for the first time in 1970.  On entering the Visitor Center the very first thing I asked the Park Ranger who stood before me in her Smokey the Bear hat was “Where is Teton Marsh where they filmed the show “One Day at Teton Marsh?”  She crinkled up her nose at me and said “huh, what are you talking about?”  Twelve years later I discovered the spot where the movie was filmed but that's another story.

I started trapping furbearers in 1964, the same year that “One Day at Teton Marsh” aired on the Disney program.  I used to get up very early on Saturday mornings and pedal my bicycle one mile east of Cameron then one mile north and then another mile east to a place where Rice Creek crossed under the bridge.  There while filled with fantasies of someday being a trapper living off the land in the wilds of Canada, I set out 10-traps in the hopes of catching a muskrat or a mink or a raccoon.  Because of school (this was the 8th grade) I had to pull up the traps on Sunday morning and wait until the following weekend to reset them.  That first year I caught five muskrats and one mink.  Despite my lousy showing as a trapper (Sam Parker paid me $6.25 for my total year’s catch) I had all sorts of dreams about being a better trapper next year.

Through the winter and the following spring I read every issue of the Fur Fish and Game magazine that I could get my hands on.  My uncle Allen Beranek had a collection of FFG in his old closet in my grandparent’s home and I took them home and read all of them.  My reading was designed to help me be a better muskrat trapper.  However there were all sorts of stories about how to trap River Otters.  The authors of those stories made it sound like River Otter was the smartest creature on earth and only the best of the best trappers could ever catch one.  There was a trapper named David Barta who lived on a dairy farm along the Red Cedar River in Barron County who was the premiere River Otter trapper in my part of the world when I was a kid.  He always caught his limit of Otters every winter and I used to stand in awe of him for that ability. Many were the times I would stop at his farm with my dad and I would interrogate him about how to catch an Otter.  He would give up little bits and pieces of information but not much else.
Spring Creek east of Rice Lake Wisconsin. I learned more basics of biology along this stream than anywhere else on earth.

We moved to our farm east of Rice Lake in July 1967.  It was just one-quarter mile from Spring Creek which, luckily, had what seemed to me like a super abundance of Brook Trout in it.  I spent many hours traipsing up and down the stream bed of Spring Creek fishing for Brook Trout with my fly rod.  When I wasn’t fishing in those days I was hunting ducks or anything else that flew and when I wasn’t hunting I was trapping Muskrats and Mink and Raccoon along Spring Creek and nearby areas.  It was near the end of the 1967 trapping and duck hunting season, right about at the time of the first snowfall that I noticed River Otter tracks along the banks of Spring Creek.  For a budding Otter trapper this was very good information.

Otter tracks

River Otter is a very social animal.  They usually travel in family groups that can include mom, dad, and maybe up to five young (called kits when babies in my part of the world).  They have been variously called playful and comical and many other similar terms and all of them seem to fit.  I remember once when my youngest daughter was 2 years old she and I went for a walk in the heavily forested area known as the “Mikana Swamp.”  There we came on to a family group of River Otters sliding down a hill and diving into the water.  Dana and I sat motionless (amazing for a two year old) for almost an hour watching the Otters frolic around in the water.  I still remember Dana saying “they playing daddy” as we sat silently in the forest.
 River Otters just being River Otters

One characteristic of River Otters that can be there downfall is that they have a tendency to defecate in the same place all the time.  Biologists appropriately call these places Otter “toilets” and that is what they are.  Not long after discovering the Otter tracks on the banks of Spring Creek I also discovered an Otter toilet.  During my regular explorations of my “neighborhood” I would also regularly walk along the banks of the Red Cedar River by what we called the “Dobie Bridge” and sometimes I’d walk it down to the Highway 48 Bridge.  While walking this area I discovered another Otter toilet and much to my surprise around it in the snow I found an Otter track that looked like one I had seen along Spring Creek a few miles south.  I knew this because the middle toe on the right front foot was missing. 

The contents of an Otter toilet

Still later near Hawthorne Park where the Red Cedar dumps into Rice Lake I found another Otter toilet and it contained the same distinctive track as the one by the Dobie Bridge.  Adding to the mystery was the Otter tracks where Spring Creek leaves Lake Montanis.  Again, another Otter toilet and again the foot with the missing toe.  Looking on a map I could tell that these Otters were traversing an almost circular route during the winter.  With enough time and exploring that winter I learned about the biological concept of “home range” and these Otters had a home range of about 12 miles that they traversed in an average of 6 days.  The route went up Spring Creek to near its headwaters then cut cross country to the Red Cedar River by Campia.  From there they worked their way down the river to Rice Lake that they crossed along its eastern shore.  From Rice Lake they hopped over Orchard Beach Lane by Jachim’s house and spent time on Lake Montains then down to what I called "Johnson Lake" before turning north.  They passed throught he Lake Monntanis bog before finding the inflow of Spring Creek and following it back north to one-quarter mile from our farm. From there they continued the circle.
The Red Cedar River in Barron County Wisconsin

This was very good information for a budding Otter trapper.  I followed them like a Lion on an Impala for a year and eventually knew that if I went to Place X on Day Y and then hung out there long enough the Otters would put in a showing.  They always did and they almost always used the same pieces of ground and river bank and it was there that I decided to place some traps to catch one.
The circular home range (shown in orange) of "my" River Otters in Barron County, Wisconsin.  

I had 6 Victor size 4 double spring traps set specifically for Otter that winter.  Each one was set on an obvious Otter toilet and all I had to do was to wait for Mother Nature to call when an Otter was in the neighborhood and I would be able to graduate to the self-described rank of Supreme Trapper because I had caught the smartest furbearer in North America.

And I did catch one. Only one.  And when I took that one and only River Otter out of my trap that day along Spring Creek I felt so incredibly ashamed of myself for killing such utter beauty just for my own gratification that I did two things in less than an hour.  First and foremost I made a vow to myself to never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever set a trap anywhere near where there was even a remote possibility of catching another Otter.  Once that vow was made I jumped in our pickup truck and raced off to the other five traps I had set for this family group and hoped that none of the others had an Otter in them.  None of them did and despite trapping (and paying for my undergraduate degree by trapping) Muskrats, Mink, Raccoon, Fox, and Beaver for several years to come I never caught another Otter.
 An Otter pelt.  This picture was downloaded (without attribution) from Google Images.

As I have aged I have developed a deep appreciation for River Otters.  There is something about them that even when I see one in suburban Florida they still give me a sense of wonder and a feeling like I’m a kid again on Spring Creek tracking down where Otters go to take a dump. 

Otters have been persecuted for ages by misinformed people who believe they eat trout.  And trout, of course, are a very highly sought after sport fish.  However while in graduate school I conducted a little research on Otter food habits and I did this by collecting all sorts of Otter droppings at all of those Otter toilets and then identifying the fish they ate by looking at the fish scales in the droppings.  At the end of my research I discovered an interesting thing – at least where my otters were concerned about 96 percent of their food was made up of two fishes – Suckers and Carp.  Both are large, lumbering, and slow moving and consequently easier to catch than a sleek and fast moving trout.  And before you ask about the remaining 4 percent of the food items, they were evenly divided between Perch and Bluegills.  The Otters never touched a trout.

We are very lucky here in Florida to have an abundance of River Otters almost everywhere in the State.  I have not kept track but I would bet I have seen them in at least 50 of Florida’s 67 counties and I see them with great regularity.  Florida is the only place they occur in enough abundance that it’s not uncommon to find a road-killed River Otter lying on the side of the highway and that is especially true when you are out in the Everglades.  Other parts of the country are not so lucky and do not have half the apparent population of River Otters that Florida has.  Although the number of animals taken by trappers is regulated and managed what isn’t regulated and managed is the widespread and rampant destruction of wetlands on which River Otters depend.  To help conservation efforts the River Otter Alliance has been formed to educate people about these wonderful mammals and to affect changes that can benefit them and make sure that River Otters are on the landscape long after you and I are gone.
Chilled out River Otters (Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service)

I hope they succeed and I hope 200 years from now there are still River Otters around so when some bicyclist pedals down Cooper Creek Parkway he or she has a chance to take a mini trip to the wilderness like I did this morning when I had a brief encounter with a River Otter.


  1. Hi... Thanks for your wonderful report. Your insight on how much a little stream can teach us was spot-on. I, too, am amazed by otters. I also trapped when I was a teen and was impressed by its apparent contradictions. It both seemed noble, a high-order outdoor activity, above hunting/fishing even (I called it "farming the forest"). At the same time once I was away from trapping (at college) I got to feeling bad about it. You remark that you felt bad about killing an otter because of its beauty. I understand the inner conflict. At the same time... We don't kill anything because it's ugly. To me all creatures are beautiful. And none of them are bad. The main question seems to be is if our harvesting is sustainable. If a population is too large for an area that's a 'badness,' or if a certain critter is in a wrong place (weasel in chicken coop) that's a badness. Our harvests can help with this, to restore balance and control where needed. I have the other typical conflicts about trapping as well, but they also seem resolvable: as for the cruelty, animals are either quickly killed by the trap or only held for a few hours by a numb foot, similar as if they tanged in a fence; as for the "unneeded luxury," gold-miners face the same criticism, but moreover I find fur coats to be a legit enduring value, of a higher order than meat meals. In the end, my inclination would be to avoid otters as well. And also martens/fishers/bobcats... And there we go again: once I get going on the "cuteness" angle I end up sparing all the critters! :) Yet, of course, my sparing them doesn't spare them. They're still out there, tooth'n'nail. Hmmm...there does seem to be something relevant with animal 'couples' and 'meaningful' packs. Some animals don't notice if one of their group is suddenly missing -- deer will go on eating, etc. But geese and wolves seem attached to mates and peers. That is, some animals behave like replaceable cogs. A school of minnows isn't sad, or any less relevant if a few go missing, as long as the remaining population is sustainable. Well, these questions can be interesting! I'm glad to see you touch on it here in this post.