Pat’s Wildways: Lake the Otter

By Pat Foster-Turley
Bayou, my favorite otter, was my pal and colleague for more than a decade.

“I smell like otter!” It was like 30 years ago—the memories flooded in from this long-forgotten olfactory immersion. Baby otter smell. There’s nothing like it. And the smell was all over and around me and absorbed in my pores. I was back! Otters!!!!

Thirty-some years ago at Marine World Africa USA in California, I was the “Otter Lady.” I raised orphaned baby otters for the State of California and they imprinted on me. I was a member of their family for a decade, handling them daily, walking them on leashes, and teaching people to cherish otters and wetlands. Eventually, I got my Ph.D., studied otters in Southeast Asia, and became chair of the IUCN Otter Specialist Group. But always the spirit of my otter family resided in my soul. Albion, Bayou, Cajun and Delta—they still visit me in my happiest dreams.

But handling otters was in my past. I knew that for sure. These days any orphaned wild otter cubs found are raised by certified rehabbers with the idea of returning them to the wild. But that’s nearly impossible to do. They become imprinted on people that bottle feed them and will always look to people as their friends, or in my case, with mine, as family. They don’t know the wild survival skills their mother would teach them for a year, and they can become a dangerous nuisance to people they may meet, looking for food, coming too close, biting if thwarted. I could never get bonded to an otter again, those days were gone.

Lake the baby otter nestles in my arms in my old Marine World jacket, by chance the jacket I used to wear 30 years ago when I cuddled my own otters.

But then I met Lake, a two-month-old fragile little guy at The ARK in Hilliard. I went there on a whim this past Saturday after getting the go-ahead from Jonathan Howard since this place is generally closed to the public. Jonathan remembered me from the photos and stories I shared with him about my long-ago otter experiences. Otters, it turns out, are his favorite critters too. “Come on over,” he said so my friend Betty Duckworth and I drove to Hilliard.

By some miracle of serendipity Saturday I was wearing an old Marine World jacket that I had just found from the dim recesses of my closet. Little did I know that soon I would be cuddling Lake, a two-month-old otter that had been in Jonathan’s care for about a month. When this otter was found it was almost completely paralyzed but Jonathan tube-fed him, held him, stimulated him, medicated him and by the time I met Lake he could move all limbs and raise his head. There was hope he would improve enough to get around, in captivity at least.

Lake was happy in my arms, but I was even happier.

Jonathan asked if I wanted to hold him—he said the more handling the better to perk up his spirits and soothe him. I was in ecstasy with a baby otter in my arms again. And with my Marine World logo in the photos, my Marine World friends on Facebook said these photos were like going back in time. I felt it too, and the smell and touch of a baby otter brought back hordes of wonderful memories. The little guy seemed mentally alert and bright-eyed and I was already envisioning his improvement, leash training him, and using him for educational talks. He would be too impaired to be released but a perfect animal ambassador for his species. And I was in a position to do it. Unbelievable!

So Monday I went back to The ARK with a large otter puppet to keep him company and an otter-sized leash and harness to start acclimating him. Jonathan was all for it. I spent a few hours Monday just holding him, and petting and soothing him, giving him a sponge bath, talking otter: “Hmm, hmmm, hmmmm” to him. When I tried to put him back in his pen he started stretching and reaching his limbs to me and twisting but when I picked him up again he calmly rested in my lap. He seemed happy.

My final view of Lake beside his new stuffed otter puppet.

I reluctantly left him beside that stuffed otter puppet and drove home with my clothes and car smelling that euphoric scent of baby otter and with plans to return soon again. But this morning I got this message from Jonathan, “I am so sad this evening. You came and spent the day with Lake, which could not have been just a fluke. He passed this evening. You were meant to come and show him all the love you did today. Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart. I was with him for some time before he passed holding and loving him. The little guy passed warm and loved.”

If you want to help The ARK check out their website. They have many more animals they are caring for besides Lake, but I’ll write more about this next time. Right now I’m still smelling yesterday’s shirt and mourning little Lake. If you care, donations in Lake’s honor to The ARK might be appropriate. They can use all the help they can get.

Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]

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Dickie Anderson
Dickie Anderson(@dickie-andersongmail-com)
11 months ago

Pat, an especially touching account. You brought Lake some special love in his last days.

Richard Timm
Richard Timm(@rtimm-ontheislandgmail-com)
11 months ago

Thank you Pat. This brings back memories for me too.

11 months ago
Reply to  Richard Timm

Send me an email. I’d love to hear your story. [email protected]

Ms. Tracy Arthur
Ms. Tracy Arthur (@guest_70184)
11 months ago

Thank you, Pat, for sharing this. That sweet little otter knew lots of love.

Noble Member
11 months ago

Oh, Pat! What a sweet story. Grateful for your care. Sorry for your loss.

Paula Mutzel
Paula Mutzel(@paula-m)
11 months ago

What a wonderful story…so glad and thankful there are people like you and Jonathan still in this world.

Nicci Wright
Nicci Wright (@guest_70189)
11 months ago

Hi Pat, always a heartbreaking loss. I have hand reared, rehabilitated and released many African clawless otter and your mention of the otter smell took me right back to them all, thank you!

11 months ago
Reply to  Nicci Wright

Can you send me an email. [email protected]. Id like to learn more about how you released hand raised otters.

Jo-Ann Leimberg
Jo-Ann Leimberg(@jo-ann-leimberg)
11 months ago

ARK is deserving of support. Steve and I, then I alone have taken baby raccoons there to be cared for.
Thanks, Pat, for the reminder to send another donation.

11 months ago

Jonathan and the ARK are deserving of any help directed their way.

Judi Mixon Brown
Judi Mixon Brown (@guest_70214)
11 months ago

Pat, your being there on Lake’s last day was meant to be. Thank you for being there for the little fellow and for all you do for the animals that can’t speak for themselves.

Noble Member
11 months ago

Oh Ms. Pat, I am so very sorry to hear that little Lake passed away! However, I was pleased to read your follow up article about ARK (which led me to this one)! You are SO correct that ARK is indeed worthy of any time or monetary donations that people can muster! Animals are losing their habitat in our once rural county at an alarming rate and it is groups like these that protect them. Thank you for highlighting the wonderful work they do!!