October 24, 2022 | 4:30 p.m.
As the waters of the Canadian River flowed over its reedy banks, four adolescent river otters spilled out of their crates, scampered into the swamp and splashed in the muddy water.
Against a gentle current, the otters turned and rolled through the water, dipping and diving, with what can only be described as utter otter bliss. Within minutes, the four disappeared around the bend, exploring their new home.
The otters were rehabilitated and released in mid-October by Wild Care Oklahoma, a non-profit wildlife rehabilitation center in Noble. Animal care staff have raised the otters since they were just a few weeks old, dreaming of a successful release day like this.
As the bouncing heads of the otters drifted away, Animal Care Manager Hannah Altonji started to get a little emotional.
“I definitely cried. It’s a very special day for these otters to be released,” Altonji said. “We were in charge of hand feeding them while they were still with their eyes closed, little little apples of loam. And now, to see them swimming in this river, it was a very exciting day.
A tragic beginning, a happy ending
Three of the otters are littermates who lost their mothers before they even opened their eyes when she was crushed by an oil rig. A few weeks later, another abandoned baby otter joined the group, beginning the next phase of the foursome’s young life: rehabilitation.
WildCare staff raised baby otters from bottle-feeding, “little fat potatoes” who still needed help burping and going to the bathroom, to exuberant teenagers who rushed and swam around their enclosure outside, shamelessly slamming their mouths while they were eating fish.
But rehabilitating four wild animals takes patience and expertise. The staff took special care to keep the otters from getting used to people. Addiction can be dangerous, even deadly, said WildCare veterinarian Dr. Kyle Abbott.
“How do you raise an animal by hand and ensure that it is always a thriving animal in the wild?” said Abbott. “[When] we see more habituation, [there are] behavioral issues where these animals do not exhibit the appropriate fear of humans and actually approach us. … We try to teach them, we are human, you are an animal. You must get away from us.
For animals like baby otters that require a high level of care, Abbott said rehabilitation minimizes human exposure as much as possible. For example, staff members keep conversations sparse and in low voices during otter meals so they don’t get so used to human voices. Once they eat on their own, Abbott said the team only interacts with them when necessary.
Even still, these otters interacted with humans far more than the average wild otter, so WildCare organized a “gentle release” for this group of four. An owner near the river has volunteered to keep an eye out for otters and report to WildCare, as well as bringing them trays of fish on a regular basis. With any luck, the otters will disperse for miles from their new habitat within a week or two, and they will finally be on their own.
Otters in OK
Oklahoma’s otter population got a big boost in the mid-1980s, when the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation reintroduced the species from Louisiana to eastern Oklahoma. River otters are now distributed throughout the eastern half of the state, especially concentrated in the southeast region.
Otters tend to travel long distances – up to around 20 miles – and at around 2 years of age they begin to mate and produce litters of their own. Otters often commandeer the shelters of other animals, such as beaver dens, for their own. In captivity, otters can live up to around 20 years, but in the wild, that number shrinks to around 5 years.
While exuberant river weasels can look cute and cuddly, Abbott said not only is it dangerous for otters if people approach them, but it can also be dangerous for humans. Otters have strong jaws and particularly sharp teeth intended for latching onto struggling prey and tearing flesh.
While Oklahoma’s otter population is in relatively good condition, habitat water quality is important to monitor, Abbott said. As climate change continues to impact fish populations across the country, the future of the river otter could hang in the balance.
As for the WildCare Four, what started as a rough preface to life has culminated in a wild new chapter.
“That’s what we’re talking about. We always have that goal at the very end in our minds,” Abbott said. “When we work with them, even when they’re really tiny, we know that at the end Anyway, we’re going to bring them back here, into the wild.”