River Otter: UPDATE

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Sadly, the baby river otter we admitted yesterday did not make it through the night.  She initially rallied a bit after getting warmed up and getting some food and fluids, but after a few hours she began to go downhill.  Based on the condition of the mother’s body, she must have been on her own for at least a couple of days, which is a very long time for a baby that is still nursing.  She had simply gone too long without nutrition before she was found, and her body began to shut down.  She was unable to retain body heat, and no matter what I tried to keep her warm, her temperature continued to fall until finally her heart stopped around 2 AM.  Everyone here at TreeHouse was greatly saddened to lose her, but at least, thanks to the care and alertness of the couple who found her, she didn’t die shivering in a drain.

A mother’s care is of paramount importance to the survival of young animals, particularly mammals, and no matter what the circumstances, the odds are stacked against orphans cut off from maternal care.  In nature, many animals succumb to weather conditions, predators, and even simply being the runt of the litter.  This is the way natural selection works.  At TreeHouse, we are able to help so many animals that are victims of both natural and human-caused trauma.  Each year, we raise a great many orphaned animals for release back to the wild.  It is always incredibly rewarding when we are able to release an animal that was brought to us malnourished and shivering from exposure, and that we nursed back to health and cared for until it was mature and strong enough to survive on its own.  Still, it is often the animals that do not make it that really stay with us, and this otter will certainly be one of those for me.

But as always, life goes on at TreeHouse.  We received good news today as well–a bald eagle we admitted over the winter with a broken tibiotarsus (equivalent to the shin) from a gunshot went to the vet yesterday and had her cast removed.  The eagle is a huge female that came from along the Little Wabash River in Clay County.  Although recovery from injuries of this kind is a long process, she is doing well, and as long as she retains enough function in the talons of her injured leg, we are hopeful about her prospects for recovery.

There is always another animal in need of care for an injury, or more babies orphaned and in need of nurturing, and it is simply the nature of wildlife rehabilitation that we will experience emotional ups and downs as we continue to invest ourselves in the care of these animals.

This picture from a release earlier this year shows what we hope the future holds for the eagle from Clay County.

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It’s a Baby Otter!

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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.