I’m so excited right now that I am literally bouncing on my desk chair.  Today, we admitted a baby river otter.  I’ve just realized that there is nothing in the world quite as adorable as a baby river otter.

I think of all the puppies and kittens I've ever seen, and then I have to accept that nothing else can ever be this cute.

After over 30 years of wildlife rehabilitation, it isn’t often that TreeHouse gets something completely new, but in all that time, we have never admitted a river otter.  They are around in this area, but much like bobcats they are rarely sighted.  According to a biologist at Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge, most otter sightings in and around the refuge come in the form of road-kill.  Otters live along the banks of secluded rivers and streams, feeding primarily on fish and crustaceans, like crayfish.  They are found throughout North America, from Florida in the south to northern Canada, and from Newfoundland in the east to the Aleutian Islands in the west.  Despite their broad range, their population has been dramatically reduced from historical numbers by habitat loss and heavy fur trapping.

I love otters.  They are highly intelligent, inquisitive, and playful.  In fact, many would argue that of all animals (besides humans!), otters show the best evidence of true play.  That is, they demonstrate behavior that does not seem to have any adaptive value, either in terms of survival, attracting a mate, learning skills for use in later life, or any other practical purpose.  They slide down mud-banks on their bellies.  They have been observed repeatedly pushing a pebble into the water, then diving down after it to catch it on the top of their head and bring it back to the surface, like a kid with diving sticks at a swimming pool.  They will even bring these “toys” back to keep in their dens—smooth stones and other objects that they play with in the water.

The otter we admitted today came from a couple who live off the Great River Road just a few miles from TreeHouse.  Her mother was found dead (cause of death unknown), but fortunately for the baby, the couple found her after hearing her whimpering coming from a drain culvert.  They dried her off, warmed her up, and brought her to TreeHouse.  Just to note, I keep using the word “her”, but we’re not sure of the sex yet.  I think it might be female, but determining the sex in otters is not actually as straightforward as it is in other mammals.

She was fairly lethargic when she first came in—she was curled in a tight little ball and wouldn’t uncurl—but after taking some warm fluids and a little bit of food, she perked up quite a bit.  She started nosing all around the counter where I was feeding her, pushing bottles and jars over as she explored her surroundings with her whiskers and staggered around on unsteady baby legs.

Like any toddler, as she began to liven up, she made an increasingly huge mess of herself.  She dipped her whole face into her water bowl and blew bubbles at the bottom through her nose, repeatedly lifting her head up for breath, then going back down to blow more bubbles.  She basically dove headfirst into her food bowl.  So, before she could go back into her cage in the nursery, she needed a bath.  I put her into a shallow pan of warm water, and she took to the water about as gleefully as you might expect a baby otter to do.  She swam all around the pan, going underwater as much as the shallow water would allow.  She is not a strong swimmer yet—it was likely her first time swimming on her own—but she looked more comfortable in the water than she does on land.

Fortunately, although we have never rescued an otter before, we have a lot of great information resources we will be utilizing, and we hope we will be able to raise this orphan for release back to the wild.

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