Like everyone else these days, I’ve been complaining about the heat, and even dedicated a column last week to this topic. But I haven’t stopped thinking about it and about the animals that are getting hot along with us. And, for me, this brought to mind the animals at the ARK Wildlife Care and Sanctuary in Hilliard. The animals there get the best of care and all have pools and tubs of water to cool off in. But recently a viral video crossed my path – that of three North American rescued river otters frolicking in a tub of ice. Surely the otters at the ARK would love this too? There was only one way to find out. I called Jonathan, the director at the ARK, and he was all for the idea.
So this past Saturday Susan Gallion and I went out to Hilliard with my car trunk loaded with two large chest freezers full of ice and a dozen or more blocks of ice we made in our home freezers using empty plastic containers of various sizes. Jonathon was there to greet us, and together we went to the large otter enclosure holding two rescued but un-releasable otters, Gangsta and Felony. Excitedly we put a tub in the enclosure and dumped in a 20-pound bag of ice, waiting for the games to begin. But the show was not what we expected.
Gangsta peered out of his den box, too timid to come out to greet us but Felony ran over to the ice tub, nosed at it a bit, and then lost interest. No jumping in the ice squirming around for him. Jonathan tossed a few of the large ice chunks into the otter’s pool, and then the action began. Felony jumped in after the floating blocks of ice and quickly gathered one in his paws, pressed it against his body, and pushed it over to the den box and right in the door, while Gangsta watched from within. And then, to our astonishment, Felony went back into the pool and fished out three more floating ice blocks, maneuvered them into the den box too, and went inside himself. “He must have wanted air conditioning,” Jonathan joked. The rest of the ice in the tub was neglected—they had no interest in it at all.
The young otter Vedra, in another enclosure, was a bit more fun to watch when we gave her her own tub of ice. Although she was more interested in playing with her caretaker Jonathan, she did poke her face into the ice. But she chose to take little clumps of ice away from the mound and push them with her nose all around the enclosure. When she was given the blocks of ice in her pool, she played with these too. It was only when we dumped the crushed ice out of the tub and let it melt on the floor that she got interested in sliding around on it, and cooling off. Go figure.
I couldn’t leave the ARK without visiting Nutie, the confiscated hand-raised nutria that lives in its own enclosure there. Nutria are large rodents originally from South America that have been introduced in Louisiana and elsewhere for the fur trade. These imports have reproduced phenomenally and now occupy ranges in other southeastern states, the Pacific Northwest, and along the Atlantic coast, including many areas in Florida. Nutria have become a nuisance animal in wetlands where they destroy natural habitat through their tunneling and burrowing and consumption of wetland plants. But to know one is to love them.
Over the course of my visits to the ARK, I often enter Nutie’s pen to play with him. So why not give him ice too? Well, Nutie was not so interested in the ice block, since he was at the time happily engaged in consuming his favorite food, butternut squash. But when he finally touched the block with his nose he jumped up in surprise and then ran around the enclosure. I playfully stalked him and chased him, and he chased me back, all the time chuckling his cute little fun call, and then he flipped over on his back for me to scratch his stomach. Maybe the ice wasn’t really a hit with him, but it sparked him into a great play session with me.
The Otter Ice Capades I imagined from that initial viral video did not turn out as expected, but it sure was fun, for Susan, Jonathan, and me. And I’m sure the change in activity was great for the animals too. What will I think of for them next? We will see.
Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]