Expert Weighs In On Spate Of Incidents Wafact

Otters have a reputation as fun, playful animals. They swirl through the water, perform acrobatics and snack on seafood. But multiple eye-opening stories of otter attacks have emerged this summer. The most recent report comes from actress Crystal Finn, known for an appearance on hit show Succession. Finn was treated for multiple bites after encountering otters in a California river in July.

What’s behind this seeming flurry of otter attacks? Conservationist and river otter researcher Heide Island says there are no short answers. “River otter attacks are exceedingly rare; however, they can happen,” Island told me over email. The summer time frame matches with when female river otters are rearing their young and teaching them how to swim and fish in waterways.

Finn’s unfortunate otter experience took place while she was swimming in the Feather River in northern California. “I felt something on my backside and on my leg,” Finn told the San Francisco Chronicle. The actress was treated at Tahoe Forest Hospital for otter bites on her legs and rear. A doctor told the Chronicle two separate otter-attack victims were treated at the hospital in July.

The California incidents preceded another otter incident near Bozeman, Montana in early August. An otter attacked a group of women who were floating on inner tubes down the Jefferson River. “All three women were injured during the encounter and received medical treatment in Bozeman. One of them, whose injuries were more serious, was taken to the hospital in a helicopter,” the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks said in a statement on August 3.

A 2021 review published in the IUCN/SSC Otter Specialist Group Bulletin tallied 20 reported otter attacks worldwide from 2011 to 2021. A previous review from 2011 counted 39 reports of violent human-otter interactions between 1875 and 2010. The most recent review pointed to human encroachment on otter habitat as a factor in some of the attacks. “I suspect we’re hearing about more attacks than usual this summer because it’s been so hot, sending more people to the rivers to swim and recreate,” Megan Isadore, executive director of the River Otter Ecology Project, told me over email.

Isadore has worked in river otter habitats for over a decade and has never had a negative encounter. “The best way to avoid them is to be aware of where you’re swimming, and if you see river otters, swim to the bank to avoid them, let them pass by, and enjoy the viewing,” she said.

North American river otters can weigh from 10 to 33 pounds, according to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. They’re found throughout the U.S. and typically live around streams, rivers, lakes and marshes. “Like other carnivores, their teeth are well adapted for grinding and crushing,” the Smithsonian fact sheet says.

Montana FWP’s advice on otter encounters is to fight back, get away, get out of the water and then seek medical attention. “Unfortunately, when we play in the water, we forget we are in the wilderness, an area shared with wildlife,” said Island. “The same wildlife who make their homes, protect their young, and defend territories (typically to protect their young) in those wild spaces.”

It’s not just river otters making news this year. A female sea otter has been stealing boards from surfers off the coast of Santa Cruz, California. Officially known as Otter 841, the animal became an online celebrity, but the story goes deeper than the cuteness of photos and the seemingly amusing behavior. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife described the otter as “unusually aggressive” and a “potential public safety risk.” Experts from the department and the Monterey Bay Aquarium have attempted to capture her, but the otter is still on the loose.

Island sees bigger issues at play in the recent rise in otter attack reports. She calls out climate change and human activity for placing extra pressure on wildlife. “When hungry, stressed, or threatened, animals are more likely to engage in defensive behavior,” Island told me. “It may seem aggressive to us, but as I mentioned, they are defending young, a territory, a den, or some other food resource that they need to survive.”

Practice Wilderness Etiquette

Island offers these tips on how to behave in the wilderness—including in otter territory:

1. Be situationally aware. What is in the environment? What do you hear? Are you stepping on the trail or on undisturbed habitat? Are there any areas that might house animals? If so, keep clear of those.

2. Do not use alcohol or drugs while in the wilderness. It blunts our awareness and makes us a danger to ourselves and the wilderness.

3. Be respectful. If you see wildlife, leave them alone, give them space—preferably a lot of space. If that means you get out of the water to avoid a confrontation, then do that.

4. Leave no trace. Take all of your rubbish with you; if you build a fire in places where that is legal, be sure you do not leave a burn scar; if you need to “cop a squat” in the woods, bury the evidence. Animals are sensitive to smell and often use urine and feces to mark territory.

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