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By Bill Hoagland
We have a creek that runs through our property where Annie’s barn is located. In the 40 years that we have had the place, I had never seen in that creek the critter I am about to discuss—until this past week, that is. And now I don’t know if their presence in the creek is “good” or “bad”. The critter I am referring to is the “Lontra canadensis” or “North American river otter.”
Earlier this week, while walking past a deep pool in the creek, I noticed a huge amount of swirling on the surface of the water—certainly much more than what you would expect for a quiet but permanent stream. So I stopped to determine what in the world was going on under the surface. As I stood there, I saw at the opposite end of the pool, where the shoal began, a long, slick-looking critter—pitch black– exiting the pool and heading downstream. And then there was a procession of four other “slick” critters who, one by one, exited the pool and followed the leader downstream. It did not take me long to realize that I was witnessing a “herd” of river otters, who had apparently just consumed most of the fish and other aquatic life in that pool.
So at that point, I figured I probably needed to get some background information on our new neighbors. As it turns out, the otter is a carnivorous, semi-aquatic mammal that is actually much larger than I expected; an adult can be three or four feet long (including the tail, which generally is about a third of the length of the body) and can weigh sometimes as much as thirty pounds. They are well-suited for the water, with webbed feet, streamlined head, ears and shoulders, and a coat of water-friendly fur. They also have whiskers similar to that of a seal; these whiskers enable the otter to sense the location of fish and other aquatic life underwater even when the water is murky. The coat of the adult can be a brown-gray but the ones I saw were pitch black.
While the otter is confrontational with respect to other animals, it is apparently a very social animal within the species, seemingly being very playful with family members and other otters. The female is monogamous, but the male otter is polygynous, meaning that the male will routinely have multiple female partners. There apparently is a significant amount of communication within a family of otters, including snorts, whistles, growls and hissing. The otter in the wild has a life expectancy of about eight to twelve years.
Despite their playful appearance, the otter is actually a significant predator. The adult can consume as much as two or three pounds of fish per day and for that reason, while otters may be “fun” to watch as they play amongst themselves, they can also be very destructive to the other aquatic life in a creek or pond. And here is where the personality traits of an otter become encumbered with a misleading perception: according to “www.psycho-tests.com”– a website devoted to psychological issues–psychologists sometimes use the term “otter” to describe a particular human personality. To them, an “otter” is someone who “knows how to enjoy life like children [do]”; they are “loyal and devoted to a partner” and they are “willing to look at life from a different angle”. Really?
Maybe those psychologists should have been with me as I watched those otters strip that pool of nearly every fish in there. Predators are still predators, not happy-go-lucky bumblers, and we always need to be mindful of that fact, whether we are talking about bears, cougars or yes, even otters.
■ Bill Hoagland has practiced law in Alton for more than 50 years, but he has spent more than 70 years hunting, fishing and generally being in the great outdoors. His wife, Annie, shares his love of the outdoor life. Much of their spare time is spent on their farm in Calhoun County. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.