Most mama river otters have two or three babies at a time. I had five! Now I’m up to my whiskers in otter pups.
An empty beaver den makes a cozy nursery for my family. It has an underwater entrance, so predators have a tough time getting in. Space is tight, but my babies aren’t big. When they were born, each pup was the size of a cucumber. They were blind and toothless and had tiny webbed feet and chocolatey-brown fur. Now they’re a month old, and their little eyes are squinting open to see the world for the first time.
When I’m in the den, I curl around my babies like a giant chocolate doughnut. You know what goes great with doughnuts? Milk. I make lots of it to feed my babies. They make happy chuckling noises when they nurse. My body heat keeps the pups warm while they snuggle and sleep.
Grrrrr! It feels like this den is crawling with otters. Oh, wait. It is. My pups wrestle and tumble around the den. They climb on me like I’m some kind of furry jungle gym. But their rough-housing has a purpose. It teaches them to be strong and quick, so they can fend for themselves someday.
Whenever I need a little “me time,” I slip out into the cool, silent water. River otters are mostly nocturnal, which means my me time is usually at night. I cruise on the surface of the stream looking for fish. When I spot one, I arch my back and dive. Then the chase is on! I twist my long, streamlined body into turns that would make a ballet dancer dizzy. With a few strokes of my webbed feet and a swish of my thick tail, I can out-swim all but the fastest fish.
Believe it or not, baby river otters don’t know how to swim. When they’re about 12 weeks old, I start swimming lessons. My kids aren’t the most enthusiastic students — in fact, some of them are scared of water — so I have to drag them in. I work with one pup at a time. First, I teach it how to float. Then, how to paddle and turn. Finally, I teach it to dive. When each day’s lesson is over, I carry the pups back to the den for milk and a well-deserved nap.
Have you ever tried to catch a fish — with your mouth? Lucky for me, I have a few tricks that give me the upper paw. Bushy whiskers help me feel things in murky water. Nose clips and earplugs aren’t needed. I just squeeze my schnoz and ears shut. On land, I’m terribly nearsighted, but underwater I see much better. And, I can hold my breath for 4 minutes, which is plenty of time to nab dinner.
During the summer, crayfish make up most of my menu. Mmmm, crunchy. I flip over rocks and root around roots to find them. In winter, I eat mostly fish. Mmmm, sushi. But otters aren’t picky eaters. We’ll gobble whatever we can catch, including frogs, snakes, turtles, mussels, muskrats, birds, and insects. Sometimes I float on my back to snack on smaller nibbles. But if I catch a big bite, I drag it to shore.
Take it from me, there’s nothing like a good shake to dry off your wet coat. If that doesn’t do the trick, rolling in leaves is better than a bath towel. Otters have thick, silky coats of waterproof fur. When that’s the only thing between you and chilly winter water, you learn to take care of it!
Otters are all-terrain animals! Our backs hunch when we run along the shore. It looks funny, but we can boogie around at 18 miles per hour, which is probably faster than you can run. In snow, we build up speed then tuck our arms and legs to our sides and sliiiiide. You should try it some time — it’s fun!
While I hunt, the pups play with rocks, mussel shells, and turtles, tossing and diving for them over and over again. They play tag underwater, leaving trails of bubbles as they streak by. Sometimes their games mess up my fishing, but I don’t mind. Playing is how little otters learn the skills they need to survive.
My great-great-great-grandmother came from Louisiana. She didn’t swim here. She was caught in a trap, put in a cage, flown here, and turned loose in a big marsh called Fountain Grove. Why? Well, when Missouri first became a state, people didn’t take care of nature. They drained marshes and polluted rivers. With fewer and fewer places to hunt for food and raise babies, otters disappeared. But people began to clean up their act, and by the 1980s, there were enough healthy habitats that the Conservation Department decided to bring otters back. Biologists turned loose more than 800 otters, including my great- great-great-grandma. When she arrived, there were only 70 otters in the state. Today, there are between 10,000 and 18,000. You could say it was an otter success!
Nichole LeClair Terrill