The auditorium at Runge Conservation Nature Center brimmed with visitors and buzzed with excitement April 17. The crowd ranged from infants to seniors.
Everyone hushed when the lights dimmed, but when the star of the show, a 4.5-foot-long river otter named Splash, made his appearance, they couldn’t contain their excitement. “Ohs” and squeals of sheer delight filled the room as the veteran performer swam, frolicked and snuggled his way into their hearts.
Supporting actors in this show were Glenn and Jeannie Chambers, who have brought otter mania to Missouri audiences for more than 13 years. For them and many at the Runge Center that April afternoon, the event was tinged with melancholy. This was the last public appearance for the Chambers and their otters.
For Glenn and Jeannie, otter shows have been more than a way to promote conservation. They have been a way of life. Not that they really needed to fill time. Jeannie is a full-time oncology nurse. Glenn’s 35-year career has included stints as a wildlife manager, a research biologist, a cinematographer, a regional director and corporate photographer for Ducks Unlimited and frequent contributor to Audubon, National Wildlife, Ranger Rick and other magazines.
Technically, Glenn retired from the Conservation Department in 1995. However, that hasn’t kept the couple from making films for the National Geographic Society, operating a hunting club and curing dozens of country hams each year. Of all the things they do, however, otters consume the most energy.
They got into the otter business in 1992, but public appearances were not part of the plan. Glenn was working on three films for the Conservation Department. He thought footage of otters would make a good addition to all three, so he spent $2,000 of his own money to buy a four-day-old female otter—its eyes not yet open—from a trapper in Louisiana. He named the tiny ball of fur “Paddlefoot.”
To ensure the baby otter would accept him as its parent, Glenn slept with Paddlefoot for three months. To give Paddlefoot some companionship and reduce demands on their own time, the Chambers bought a second female otter puppy, Babyfoot, in 1993.
Glenn turned their back yard in Columbia into an otter playground and set aside his personal life to a degree that even parents of human children might find excessive.
“Two otters equals five boys any day,” said Glenn, who with Jeannie raised five sons of their own. “These little guys are nonstop, spring-wound. Kids grow up and eventually go out and start doing things on their own. Otters remain dependent on you. They want to be close to you all the time. It’s constant maintenance—mixing food, cleaning their swimming tanks, playing with them. It never ends. You go to sleep and you see otters in your dreams, and you wake up thinking about otters.”
After hearing about his otters, the manager of Runge Conservation Nature Center asked Glenn to bring Paddlefoot in for people to see. The reaction was tremendous, and before they knew it, the Chambers were doing live-otter programs on a weekly basis. They once performed 44 times in 11 days.
At first, they let the otters run loose among the audience. But, as the otters aged and grew larger and more aggressive, this became impractical. They built a wire pen, then designed a Lucite water tank for the otters to swim in onstage. Eventually, they had to buy a Chevrolet Suburban and a big cargo trailer to carry all the gear they used in shows.
Then things got really crazy. Glenn was working on a National Geographic film and needed more otters—10 more.
“That was a major zoo,” recalls Glenn. “We had just bought two new otter puppies to replace Paddlefoot and Babyfoot on the performing circuit. They didn’t even have their eyes open.
“I was babysitting those two, plus the circuit otters. The babies had to be fed every four hours. Jeannie would leave the house at 4:30 in the morning in her coveralls and feed the National Geographic otters at a facility near Ashland. Then she would change clothes and go to work in Jefferson City. She would stop on her way home and feed them again.”
When Jeannie got home in the evening, she took over with the babies while Glenn went to film “the Geographic otters” from 9 p.m. until midnight or 1 a.m.“That was our daily routine from Jan. 17 to Aug. 13,” Jeannie said. “When I think about it now, I wonder ‘How in the world did we pull it off?’”
People who attend the Chambers’ live-otter programs often approach them afterward, saying they want their own “pet” otters. “I tell them, ‘No you wouldn’t,” Glenn said. “These are not pets. They are a liability any way you cut it, and I have the scars to show for it!”
Male otters are more manageable than females. Females revert to their wild nature when they reach about two years of age. After that, they are aggressive and dangerous.
Even the Chambers, who hand-reared their otters from puppies, are not immune to attack as the animals mature. Glenn’s arms and hands bear the marks of many bites. Babyface, one of the Chambers’ second pair of otters, was only two years old when she bit Jeannie on the throat, barely missing her carotid artery.
Besides not having the disposition to be pets, otters are enormously expensive to keep. Buying one is just the beginning. Captive otters require special equipment and veterinary care. They eat a mixture of 96-percent lean ground sirloin, shredded carrots, commercial mink meal, tomato juice, eggs, cod liver oil and whole fish. Feeding them costs more than $4,000 per otter annually.
Several things led the Chambers to end their otters’ performing careers. For one thing, Jon McRoberts, the MU graduate student who has been their indispensable assistant, will graduate in December and leave to pursue his own career. Splash and Slide also are at the end of their manageable years on the road.
Although the Chambers’ live-otter programs were tremendous fun, they also delivered three educational messages:
Finally, Glenn and Jeannie both admit that they’ve grown tired of the grind. They’ve had just one vacation in 13 years. “The Boys,” as they call the otters, will still require daily attention, but Glenn and Jeannie plan to take day trips within Missouri and develop other interests. Glenn has become an avid sporting clays shooter.
Captive otters live up to 19 years. When the Chambers’ four previous show otters became too aggressive and unmanageable for performances, they placed them in zoos, but the separations were wrenching for everyone. One otter died not long after leaving. Glenn, a hard-nosed biologist who is not prone to make animals into people, is certain the cause was a broken heart.
“That’s not going to happen again,” said Glenn.“Splash and Slide will stay with us until they die of old age.”
Splash’s last program marked the end of an era, but it coincided with the start of a new one. The intensive restoration effort for which the Chambers’ otters were poster children has succeeded beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. Missourians now routinely see otters in the wild, something that was impossible 20 years ago.
“It has been a good run,” said Glenn. “We’ll miss the smiles and laughter of the crowds, but there’s a lot of satisfaction in knowing we played a part in an important story."
Editor - TomCwynar
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Editor - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler