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Raised by Otters 

click to enlarge An otter watched by tiny fish.

Photo by Mike Kelly

An otter watched by tiny fish.

Over the years I have found three dead North American river otters (Lontra canadensis) washed up on local beaches. One of them had worn teeth, so may have lived a full life, which is supposedly between about eight and 12 years in the wild. The second otter was small but badly decomposed, and I didn't notice any clues to its death. And the third was a prime adult male who had been shot in the head, which I take personally. And I'll tell you why.

You see, my parents' swinging lifestyle was severely cramped by having a baby. So they eventually did the right thing and threw me off a bridge. It must have been my lucky day because I landed near the den of a mother river otter and her three kits.

The otter kits were probably about 10 weeks old because they were allowed out of their den, but hadn't been fully weaned yet. I was 6 months, so was also transitioning to solid foods. River otters have four nipples, so I enjoyed Otter Mom's fat-rich milk with my siblings between her gifts of pre-chewed fish and whatever else she killed.

Over the following months, my siblings and I did a lot of play wrestling. Believe me, otters may be cute but they will kick your ass. We also practiced hunting. I had a difficult time catching fish with my mouth but I dug up some yummy freshwater mussels.

In my time with my family group, we stayed along the river. But other local river otters commonly hunt in the sea. Maybe you've seen otters in our marine waters and assumed they were sea otters. While at least one sea otter has been documented passing through, we have no resident sea otters. Look for salty river otters around Trinidad Harbor and Humboldt Bay. I once even saw a group of six curious river otters swim out from Patrick's Point to check out a mother gray whale and her calf.

River otters also forage in our local tide pools. So far I've seen them catching and consuming fish such as sculpins, Pacific sardines and even a large eel-like gunnel. But river otters aren't too picky and have been observed eating all kinds of small animals. A buddy of mine even photographed one eating a bird at Stone Lagoon earlier this year. Otters don't scavenge carrion, so somehow that otter must have caught a live bird.

After a few months, I was unable to keep up with my otter siblings and Otter Mom started to get interested in Otter Pop again. They enjoyed vigorous and extended sex with lots of caterwauling, which reminded me of my human parents. I started to get homesick. I was also tired of teething on live crawdads so I set out for home.

I crawled along the highway with my thumb out and was picked up by a stranger. He said, "Boy, you look like you've been raised by wolves!" Wolves? What an idiot.

You should have seen the looks on their faces when I arrived home to find Mom and Dad and the neighbors swinging hard. Home sweet home!

Anyway, if you want to learn more about local otters, and/or report river otter sightings for science, visit www.wildlife.humboldt.edu.

And one final thought: When I first discussed writing this column with North Coast Journal staff, I asked if I could use the F-word. They said they love the F-word, so no problem. But in three years I haven't had a need — until now. To whoever shot that otter in the head: Fuck you.

Biologist Mike Kelly (he/him) writes science-based satire as M. Sid Kelly. It's available at Eureka Books and for Kindle.

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Mike Kelly

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