I keep a pair of otters perched on the back of my toilet. They’re stuffed, but that’s only because Gini won’t let me keep real otters in the bathroom. She’s unreasonable that way.
But anyone who knows me knows I love otters. The first thing I do at any zoo is head for the otters. My, uh, best friend Angie once had a (now-defunct) tumblr page called Otters for Ferrett. My friend Das Hydra floods my mentions on Twitter with any mention of otters in the news, which makes me happy. My sweetie Laura has a stockpile of otter pictures to send me when I feel down.
Otters are love.
So when said sweetie Laura texted me to go, “I got you a very special present for your birthday, but it’s an hour away and we have to schedule it,” I thought: I hope it’s otters.
As we drove to the Akron Zoo, I thought: I hope it’s otters.
And the zookeeper met us at the gate, I thought it’s otters it’s otters it’s otters.
And it was, indeed, otters.
Now, the thing that fascinated me was how much work went into zoos. I knew on some vague level that keeping all these animals was a lot of work, but until they unlatched the back room and let us all in, I didn’t realize how much. The zookeeper (who also handled the tigers) opened the fridge, and showed us all the various portions of the otter diet: some ground meat in the morning spiked with vitamins, cut-up vegetables for their evening meal (the otters eat maybe 20% of it, and each day’s feed is carefully tabulated to calculate their nutritional needs), and they get a handful of smelt for lunch.
I was to provide lunch.
But not too much lunch, as the zookeeper told us, “It’s very easy to overfeed the animals.” Their diets are strictly monitored, which some days I wish someone would do to me. Except I’d bite.
They walked us up a staircase, past a room full of pipes that led to the otter pool – a pipe marked, amusingly enough, “Otter supply,” which caused Laura and I to envision opening up a faucet and having a never-ending stream of otters pour out. We had to step in a small tub of disinfectant so our shoes wouldn’t carry anything in, or out. I looked at the dry-erase board with all the daily otter stats written on it.
Then we walked into Silence of the Lambs.
I don’t know what I supposed they did with otters when they took them inside for the night, but in retrospect just letting them run around a big room and be happy wouldn’t work out. These otters – Porthos and Molly – had only freshly met, and the zookeepers weren’t certain they could leave them alone for an entire night.
So what they had were six-foot by ten-foot cages, and a lot of pulleys with padlocks on them.
When they wanted to let an otter in, they unlatched a pulley and tugged up a little hatchway so one of the otters could squirm in. (They’re curious creatures, fortunately, so pretty much any movement seemed to get their attention.) Once they’d gotten Porthos in, with Molly trying to wriggle in with him but daunted by the experienced pulley-shutting techniques of our zookeeper, they unlocked another pulley and opened a hatchway up into an adjoining cage.
Then they put a bright white placard on the cage – it was standard operating procedure to have a card on every cage the otter was in, no matter for how brief a time, so there was no forgetting where the otters were. His read Porthos 1.0, which meant currently there was 1 male in this cage and 0 females. If Molly had gone in there, it would be Molly 0.1 – 1 female and 0 males – and if there was an animal of unknown gender, it would be UnknownGender 0.0.1.
They had placards for all combinations, I was told – which, you know, given there were only three potential iterations with two otters, seemed doable.
(I was also told, later, that the sales manager who’d escorted us in had gone to see Jurassic World with one of the other large animal handlers, and spent pretty much the entire movie joyfully pointing out sloppy procedures that would never pass muster in any real zoo. And after watching the very careful and externally-certified lockdown procedures in place, including having no pictures taken backstage so that no one could inadvertently provide information to potential otter-stealers, I believed her.)
Porthos was the rambunctious one, and there were little pools with floating mattresses for him to dive into in each cage, and at night they put in some straw so the otters could dry themselves off. They let me look at Porthos, but I was by no means to touch the otters. Which was to be expected. Otters are basically bigger ferrets, and ferrets bite, and worse they often fed the otters through the bars of the cage so the otters had been taught to see “something narrow poking through the wire” as “incoming fish.”
Even knowing that, ZOMG SO CUTE. I was worried the otters would stink of fish – I’d once had a mild penguin love before getting a snootful of penguin cage – but they were just adorable, like a larger ferret. They were so curious.
Having gotten a look at Porthos, they took us outside for otter training. They opened up the doorway in the picture above, and the trainer got out a stick with a green end to it. He touched the stick to the wire. “Touch,” he said. Porthos pressed his nose to the spot. Porthos got a fish. “Touch.” Porthos pressed his nose elsewhere, and got another fish. Pretty soon it was multiple touches, and Porthos was duly rewarded.
“Eventually, we can just point them where we want them to go,” the zookeeper said. “We can do that with tigers.”
Readers, I checked. The Akron Zoo does not, sadly, have a tiger-feeding expedition.
After squeeing at being so close to an otter, they took me inside to feed Molly. I had a small metal pet food dish with several (but not enough) smelt in it, and a set of very long tweezers for safety. “Do you want gloves?” they asked, and I thought Who would come back here to feed otters and be so scared they needed gloves?
But I fed Molly the smelt one by one, with Gini getting one shot in. (Laura declined, deferring to my birthday. I still feel a little sad about that.) Molly was so eager, pressing her little nose up against the wire, curious to see everything I was doing. I could have cuddled her, I was sure of it.
And I would have gotten my fingers bitten the shit out of if I hadn’t worried about the zookeepers.
Seriously, me, I’ve dealt with ferrets, and I know how bad their bites are. But I have come to associate ferret bites with love, and my ludicrously high pain threshold (remember the time I walked around with a burst appendix for four days, including a session in a Rise Against mosh pit?) would have shielded me. And really, I might get to pet the otter! And when people asked me, “Where did you get those stitches?” would I not have a story to tell!
But the zookeepers would feel bad, not understanding that I took full responsibility for this injury, and it would probably mean fewer people would get to feed otters. So I was good.
Still, Molly was like the coolest UI. I sat in front of the cage, and even after I’d run out of smelt, I could move my finger like it was a mouse pointer and Molly would follow it around, dazzled by the motion. And when she ate, she gobbled up the fish in an adorable way and then gave me those liquid otter eyes to ask for more.
I stayed an uncomfortably long time.
We went to the rest of the zoo afterwards, seeing the bears and tigers, and eventually I went back to the otter tank. I waved at Molly. I like to think she recognized me, but probably not. Otters are capricious creatures, and the best I could hope for was a spurious romance.
(And speaking of romance, let us all pray that the brief romance between Porthos and Molly in late May of this year has, in fact, led to baby otters. They’re still hopin’.)
When I left, Laura bought me a little stuffed otter. So now there are three otters on the back of the toilet, and Gini is complaining because the otters are nearly tumbling into the bowl, and I maintain that otters should go diving for water in a constant sense of near-disaster.
Gini remains unconvinced. But she knows it’s easier to let me have my fake otters than to hear me argue, for the thousandth time, that we could keep otters in the bathtub. The zookeepers told us we really couldn’t, but I’m pretty sure I saw one of them wink at me.
And we’ll always have this:
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.