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otter on Shawna's lap

Loni reminding me she “has needs” and not to listen to Burt.

I had the thrill of a lifetime this Easter weekend when the Woodlands Wildlife Sanctuary arrived with two very special charges ready to taste freedom for the first time since they were knee-high to a mackerel.  Monika and her crew drove 2 hours from their facility in Minden with year- old rehabilitated otters, Burt and Loni, squeaking and chuffing in anticipation from within their straw-filled travel crates having no idea what was in store.   I noticed Monika had a band-aid on her thumb, confirming Burt’s survival instincts are just under the surface of his sweet exterior.   Monika also arrived with a box of black baby squirrels, eyes still closed.   We couldn’t get the release underway until each little nursling got their belly filled with formula – hungry babies don’t wait for anyone!  These little ones had been removed from a home as the result of a renovation.  Sad to think Mama is out there somewhere, guess some contractors and home owners are short on patience too.

Squirrels fed and asleep like a contented ball of snakes, we started out down the trail through the woods. The destination was a high spot on the bank of the river near a wetland which I had pre-selected with Monika’s guidance to serve as both a  release location and “rendezvous” spot for monitoring and supplemental feeding  over the coming months.

As soon as the crate doors swung open, Burt and Loni loped out and started to busily explore their surroundings, slipping in and out of the water and making the most of an old submerged barrel which they never tired of chasing each other through.   Monika agreed that the otters saw the experience as more of “play date” which would end with being packed up and taken home, and so, not surprisingly, they never let “their people” out of their sight.   After each quick swim they were back with us on the shore, rubbing their wet fur on our legs to dry off, chuckling contentedly and wrestling with each other.   I was amused to see their warm and fuzzy personalities change instantly to that of a cartoon Tasmanian devil when Monika brought out a baggie of juicy raw chicken bits.  I was told “never get between an otter and their food”.  (I knew I had a lot in common with otters.)

two otters

When there is no pant leg to dry off on, soft pine needles will do

We set up a couple of chairs at the site so we could observe the antics for a while and help them get comfortable with the space.. which they did by marking the territory liberally with a little bounce of the hindquarters to make sure the job was done thoroughly.  Loni took the opportunity to have a few words with me at close range.  My instinct was to rub her soft fur and snuggle her and tell her I’d do everything I could to keep her fed and safe but I figured it best for her (and me) if I just act like part of the scenery (a part of the scenery which brings fish and treats on a daily basis).

The hardest part of the day was when their favourite humans had to withdraw and let them start their new lives.  As difficult as this was for Monika and her crew, it was obviously equally hard for Loni and Burt who vocalized and bounded after them down the trail each time they tried to leave.  (Cueue the sad music)  This called for a subtle disappearing act and eventually everyone left quietly one by one, leaving me with my thoughts and my new charges.  I sat there on a rock looking out at the otters on the sparkling river and realized that no matter what happened, they were back to the same habitat they were born into before unfortunate circumstances left them orphaned.  This very moment was precisely what those who loved them – both human and otter –  had dreamed for them and nothing could ever take this reunion with freedom and perfect joy away.   Gradually the otters began to come out of the water less and started to range out more and I took the opportunity to sneak away.otters in water

Back at the car I told the Woodlands folks to leave all the worrying to me.. as if that was possible.. but worry I did those first few nights.  I couldn’t shake the feeling I had left 2 babies in the woods.   My time with Loni and Burt was just beginning and I looked forward to seeing them through this next phase in their journey with a strange mixture of elation, hope and anxiety.  Stay tuned for updates as Loni and Burt adjust to life on the river.