Monday, June 1, 2009

Otters adorable? Just ask a turtle

Sitting on a slightly submerged island of peat in the rain, an otter makes quick work of a large soft-shell turtle.

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel June 1, 2009)

If you had asked me in 2001 to describe an otter with one word, I'd have chosen "playful." Not anymore. Thoughtful observation over seven years has modified my view of these semi-aquatic mammals with a penchant for sliding down slippery slopes and frolicking in the water. I now think "brutal" would be a more appropriate description.

I began observing otters in 2002, the last time Central Florida suffered from a prolonged drought. Our lake — created before we bought our property as a byproduct of a peat-mining operation — was down that year to the lowest level we had ever seen. Water was so low that a small island of peat appeared in the middle of the lake, about 200 feet in front of our house. We saw our first otter on that island, and it was to the very same spot — re-exposed because of the recent drought — that an otter returned.

The North American river otter is a member of the same family that includes weasels, minks, badgers and wolverines. Stretching about 40 inches long and weighing around 20 pounds, otters have sleek, black bodies, strong, short legs, webbed feet with five sharp claws and long, muscular tails. At first glance, a freshwater otter looks like a cross between a drenched chocolate lab and a fur-covered dolphin. At second glance, it looks like the well-conditioned predator it is.

There's no denying an otter's attractiveness. With round eyes, whiskered faces, small ears and diamond-shaped noses, these protected mammals are the epitome of adorableness. Try telling that to the animals on which these voracious carnivores dine. Crayfish, mollusks, frogs and fish might be the mainstay of an otter's diet, but that's not all they eat.

Recently I watched as a solitary otter perched on the slightly submerged peat island and slowly devoured a huge, soft-shelled turtle. Although rain fell incessantly, the otter's dining habits were not the least bit dampened. Raindrops rolled off his oil-rich pelt while he munched upon his meaty meal.

Watching the otter eat the turtle was an eerie flashback to 2002, when a pair of otters made fast work of the lake's hard- and soft-shelled turtle population. Over the course of three months, our shoreline became scattered with the hollow remains of many an otter meal. As otter sightings became more frequent, sightings of live turtles decreased.

Observing an otter chew its way through the flesh of a living turtle is nothing less than disturbing. In our Disney-ized view of the world, cute, cuddly animals aren't supposed to be vicious killers. They're especially not supposed to look like they're having so much fun while devouring their still-alive victims. That's exactly how these adorable critters look. Otters not only prey upon smaller animals, they seem to take pleasure in playing with their food.

As the otter in our lake consumed his oversized dinner, the rain-slicked mammal repeatedly changed position and refreshed himself with swims. He took breaks for grooming and breaks to rest, but he always returned to his partly eaten, still-moving entree as if he hadn't a care in the world. The otter had done what large predatory animals do — he had hunted for food and scored a meal. Success was in the proverbial saucepan, and if that saucepan happened to be my lake, well, such is life in the wild kingdom.

In order to survive, otters need to consume 15 percent of their bodyweight every day. They do that by hunting over a 50-mile territory. I'm happy that an otter has chosen our lake to supplement his diet with carapace-covered flesh, but I'm equally as unhappy to see so many turtles perish in the process.

The balance of nature is not always pretty. As the otter in our lake so ably demonstrates, sometimes the cutest animals can be the cruelest. Call them playful — otters are certainly that — but don't forget: The very same critter that looks adorable while sliding down a mud-slicked river bank isn't nearly as endearing when it tears into a turtle's flesh.

So much in life lies in perception, and first impressions don't always show the full picture.

1 comment:

  1. I live in NH. One morning this past Jan, walking thru the swamp below our house, my dog and I found two painted turtles lying out on the ice. My Rottie wears a bell on his collar so I can keep track of him on our walks. I suspect the sound of his bell getting louder as we approached the swamp frightened off the otters that had uncovered the hibernating turtles. I felt I couldn't leave the turtles out on the ice, so I brought them home with me. I found a wildlife rehabber on line who agreed to take the turtles.

    Sadly, the larger of the two turtles had to be euthanized. The otter had chewed off all the turtle's legs and her tail. The wildlife rehabber thinks the smaller female will have enough of her left hind leg remaining so that I can go and get the turtle in the spring, bringing her back to our pond to release her.

    The wildlife rehabber told me the large turtle was at least 75 years old; the smaller one, at least 35 years old.