To read about the recovery of otters to southwestern Minnesota, read our May-June feature story, Otter Odyssey.
A river otter confiscated at the Canadian border was transported to me in St. Paul, where I would care for it for a couple of days until I could drive it to Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area. There it would be released as part of an otter restoration project in the early 1980s by the DNR's Nongame Wildlife Program. In the meantime, "otter-sitting" would be a new and challenging opportunity.
I was told this otter was very tame and not aggressive. It was a young male otter about 30 inches long. It had spent its first summer in a fishing camp, where it learned to look for handouts. Sometimes it would jump into a fishing boat and race around, looking for minnow buckets or stringers of fish. Because it had lost its fear of humans, the owners of the camp feared the otter would be killed for its pelt that fall, and they had tried to smuggle it back to their home across the border in Minnesota.
After picking up the otter, I went to a local bait shop and got an ice cream bucket filled with dozens of minnows. When I arrived home, my wife, Ethelle, was still at work and our 8-year-old son, Craig, was at school. I decided to fill the bathtub and feed the otter by dumping minnows into the tub.
With the bathroom door closed, I cautiously opened the crate. The otter emerged and loped around the bathroom. I got my first exposure to the nature of otters. His movements were incredibly fluid and graceful. The otter pushed open the door of the clothes chute with its nose. I had to grab it. It tried to open the towel closet with its nose. I had to pull it out. Then it tried to go down the toilet.
Again, I grabbed the otter and released it by the tub. Every time I picked it up, it went limp and was incredibly gentle. It looked into the tub filled with minnows and dove in. It swam back and forth, inhaling one minnow after another until only one was left. It swam back and forth in the tub, nudging the hapless minnow with its nose. Finally tiring of this game, it swallowed the fish.
I was sitting at the edge of the tub, watching the otter, totally entranced. Then it climbed out of the tub and onto my lap, circling several times to dry itself off before curling up to rest.
The otter's antics were not over. It looked up at the ice cream bucket filled with minnows on the counter. It leapt onto the counter as I tried to grab the bucket. The bucket spilled onto the bathroom floor. The minnows were flopping all over. The otter dove to the floor and started slurping up the minnows. Meanwhile, I was trying to grab them so there would be some surviving minnows to feed it the next day.
That was about the time when Ethelle got home and discovered the bathroom pandemonium. I had some 'splaining to do. Then Craig got home from school and thought the otter's antics were hilarious. Craig and I decided the otter needed a name, and we chose Oscar.
Every time I picked Oscar up, he went limp like a tame little puppy and allowed me to carry him around. While the otter was quite imprinted on people, the area we had selected for his release was a no-trespassing sanctuary, and I had faith that his previous experience feeding and surviving in the wild would prevail.
Oscar Goes to School
Before I headed for Lac qui Parle to release Oscar, I decided to take him on a visit to Craig's third-grade classroom at Eisenhower Elementary School in Coon Rapids. Craig loved the idea of Dad bringing an otter to his class for show and tell. Upon arriving at the school, I asked the principal if it would be OK to take an otter into the classroom to show the kids. He said, "Sure."
Once I was in the classroom with Oscar in his crate, I told the children about otters and explained that I was organizing a DNR project to release otters in southwestern Minnesota, where they had been missing for a hundred years. This would be the first otter to be released as part of that project.
I explained that the otter was quite tame, and they didn't need to be afraid. I took Oscar from his crate, released him, and watched as he loped around the perimeter of the classroom, climbed up radiator by the window, disappeared behind the venetian blinds, and then peeked out through the blinds. The children giggled in delight. Oscar descended from the radiator and darted across the classroom, racing under the desks of the seated students as they popped up from their seats like human popcorn.
A teacher out in the hall heard the commotion and opened the door to peek inside. Oscar darted for the door and into the hallway, where students from an art class were lying on their tummies, drawing on large sheets of paper, surrounded by containers of pencils and crayons. Oscar loped down the hallway among the kids, and pencils and crayons went flying everywhere. I was in hot pursuit, and I managed to capture Oscar with a diving catch. He went limp and allowed me to carry him back to the classroom among the amazed students and teachers in the hall.
Once we were back in the classroom, I sat down with Oscar in my lap and allowed each child to come up to see the otter and ask questions. The kids loved it, and the teacher was very impressed by this impromptu, memorable, and unscripted visit. Oscar may not have received a passing score in deportment, but if awards were ever given out for show and tell, Craig would have won the prize at Eisenhower Elementary that year.
Oscar Goes Free
My time with Oscar was coming to an end. Now it was time to take him to the Lac qui Parle Wildlife Refuge. After a brief stop at the refuge headquarters, where Oscar climbed up the leg of a surprised office secretary, we headed to Rosemoen Island, a protected sanctuary on the refuge where Oscar would be free of human disturbance.
I took Oscar to the water's edge on Lac qui Parle Lake and released him. He swam out a few feet, caught a bullhead, and promptly came back on shore to munch and crunch the bullhead at my feet.
I returned to my car nearby and sat inside watching Oscar. Then he amazed me one last time! He circled to the back of my car, climbed up the bumper, over the trunk, and onto the top of my car. When he reached the front edge of the roof, he peered down at me, upside down, through the top of the windshield. Then he scrambled back down and loped out to the lake to begin his new life. Oscar had left me with one final calling card—muddy footprints across the top of my car.
My last, upside-down view of Oscar was perhaps fitting. Oscar had turned my perceptions of otters upside down. When I conceived the otter restoration project, I did so as a scientific effort to reintroduce otters, which were a native furbearer and a missing link in the state's biodiversity, to southwestern Minnesota.
My experiences with Oscar taught me that river otters are much more than a furbearer on a list of native mammals. Like the loon and the trumpeter swan, they are a charismatic symbol of Minnesota's lakes and rivers. They possess exceptional doglike intelligence, boundless curiosity, a fondness for play, and remarkable agility and grace both on land and in the water.