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Otter Chaos


Flinn Dershem
Maybe you first saw one at the zoo, zooming past your face behind a sheet of glass in its underwater enclosure. Or maybe had your first encounter on a river-rafting trip, spotting two brown beady eyes peering at you from a muddy bank, the tip of a head cocked curiously to one side.

Wherever it was, the first time you saw a river otter likely left an indelible impression on you -- that slippery brown fur that fits like a pair of wet pajamas, those mischievous eyes and toothy grin, the way their clumsy movements turn lithe and magical in the water. Not surprisingly, river otters have been enchanting humans for centuries.

The author Gavin Maxwell first popularized the idea of keeping otters as pets. In his 1960 book Ring of Bright Water, a memoir of life with his pet otter, Maxwell describes the otter playing with toys, curling up in his lap, swimming in the bathtub and begging for treats. It's hard to read the book and not wonder whether keeping an otter might be as simple as keeping a dog or a cat.

The simple truth? It's not. For one, there's the biting. When an otter bites down on your paw he's not using a pair of incisors that have been dulled from scarfing Purina. He's using chompers that are strong enough to snatch a trout mid-swim, or skin the bark off a willow branch.

Barbara Gregory, founder of the Otter Habitat and Wildlife Center in Harrisburg, PA, recalls an episode in which she was trying to feed two "handle-able" otters in their enclosure, and the female otter viciously attacked her leg. The male, spurred on by the female's aggressiveness, joined in and Gregory was lucky to get away with her leg still intact.

Besides aggressiveness, diet is another reason otters are not particularly well-suited to be pets. "It's very difficult to develop a proper diet for them," Gregory says. "I was able to put one together with the help of a gentlemen who had trapped and released otters for years in New York."

Even for otters raised in captivity, Gregory urges potential owners to reconsider keeping the animals as pets. "We release our otters back into the wild or we try to find homes for them in zoos," she says.

For more information about otters, check out these online resources:

To learn about specific state requirements for keeping otters and how to apply for a permit, visit www.bornfreeusa.org/b4a2_exotic_animals_summary.php

To learn about proper river otter care and how to create an otter habitat, visit www.ehow.com/how_2121236_care-river-otter.html

And check out what Barbara Gregory is doing to rehabilitate otters by visiting www.otternet.com/ROA/Fall1999/wildlifecenter.htm.

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