Back to Nature (Published on - Nov. 2, 2006)
Good medicine – River otter
Spanish moss twisting in the breeze reaching for chilly waters, moorhens calling in the family for dinner, gators lazing about on cool logs, snakes taking in the sun’s warmth, kingfisher’s arguing over who belongs in whose territory, the occasional manatee chomping on greens, and a flash glimpse of a family of otters frolicking in summer fun.

Native Americans hold much honor for the otter. It is said that persons with otter “medicine” are kind, gentle, deeply sensitive, spiritual, playful, maybe a bit moody to even being melancholy at times, but, as well, humanitarians with childlike curiosity. I seem to be fortunate to have two otter people close in my life. Can’t help but agree, with a smile, to this description of these two lovely otter souls.

Fairly common in Florida, the river otter is extraordinarily intelligent and is one of the few members of the animal kingdom that makes varied, intelligent use of tools. They are committed to their families longer than most animals in the wild kingdom. A mate will mourn the death of his or her companion. They love to tease and play games, sliding down banks and chasing each other.

While almost completely aquatic, river otters are equally at home on both land and fresh or salt water. Even though they build their dens on land, they must always be near a source of fresh water where they can often be seen in the wild foraging for food.

Otters are the only true amphibious members of the weasel family. Otters normally mate in early spring. In spite of the fact that male otters usually live on their own, the father does help with the preparation of the den then he leaves or is evicted by mom just before the pups are born or while the young are still very small.

The mother takes care of her babies by herself for the next four weeks in her den that is most often dug into a bank with underwater and exposed entrances. The pups must be taught how to swim by their mothers. Around this time the father returns to help with the next four weeks of continued care of the pups that are now nearly half grown.

River otters have sleek, streamlined bodies, 35 to 51 5/8-inches long, 11 to 30 pounds, rudder-like tails which are fully haired, thick at the base gradually tapering to a point. The otter’s ears are small and round and the ears and nostrils are valved to keep out water. Their hearing is well developed to distinguish a variety of sounds and to aid with communication between each other.

They have short limbs, webbed feet, large lungs and dense waterproof fur. It is because of their beautiful, dark brown, durable fur, which is rated 100 percent on the fur quality scale (all other furs are compared to the fur of the otter), that excessive trapping has in the past greatly diminished their numbers. There are numerous, stiff, whitish, whiskers around the nose and snout, and in tufts on the elbows. These tactile hairs can detect movement even in murky water to enable the otter in search for prey.

The forefeet are shorter than the hind feet. Most otters have claws, but those without them use their acute sense of touch and their manual dexterity to find and seize prey. River otters eat mainly trash fish, shellfish, crayfish, frogs and small mammals, such as mice, terrestrial invertebrates and water birds.

Otters can be found across Canada and nearly all of the United States from Newfoundland south to Florida to the Gulf of Mexico. The river otter is state-listed as endangered in Nebraska, Illinois and Colorado and threatened in South Dakota. Although sought highly for their fur, habitat destruction and polluted water are the leading causes for the recent decline in otter populations.

If you’ve never seen a River otter in the wild take a trip to your local zoo or the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Follow the guffaws of children and adult laughter where you will discover River otters happily entertaining the crowd. It is said that playfulness, as in dolphins and River otters, is a sign of high intelligence. After observing these charming, captivating animals with their silly antics you too will be convinced that this must be true. Wishing everyone a little otter “medicine” into their life … many smiles … back to nature.

Karen can be reached at

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