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Friday, June 8, 2012

A Very Special Otter Friday: ZOO FIELD TRIP EDITION!

Posted by Alex Zielinski on Fri, Jun 8, 2012 at 10:14 AM

OTTER FRIDAY A real-life river otter... RIGHT HERE IN PORTLAND!
  • OTTER FRIDAY A real-life river otter... RIGHT HERE IN PORTLAND!

Greetings, loyal Otter Friday readers! Mercury Otter Correspondents Alex and Erik here! We promised you last week that this week's post would be something of splendor. And of course we didn't let you down. Did you guess what we had in store? Doubtful.

... Unless, that is, you guessed we'd be going on a special, behind-the-scenes visit to the otters at the Oregon Zoo! Because that's exactly what we did!

A few weeks back, the zoo started promoting our weekly Otter Friday post on their Twitter feed. Intrigued and flattered by their flirtatious interest, we politely asked them if, perhaps, sometime, we might be able to come visit their river and sea otters. Not only did we get an invite, but we were taken on a fantastic V.I.P. tour of both the river and sea otter habitats... and we got to talk to friendly zookeepers! Yes. That's what we did on our Monday afternoon. What did you do on your Monday afternoon? A bunch of bullshit, probably. Meanwhile, our Monday (we called it "Otter Monday"!) was the single best day of both of our lives.

And we'd like to share it with you.

SEA OTTERS

This was our first stop. Jenny DeGroot, the zoo's marine life zookeeper and sea otter lead (a title that she has earned, while the rest of us shall merely strive for it our entire lives) introduced us to the zoo's two aging sea otters, Eddie and Thelma. This is Thelma:

THELMA Getting food out of a giant water jug LIKE A BOSS.
  • THELMA Getting food out of a giant water jug LIKE A BOSS.

Here's what we learned out sea otters:

• They get fed six times a day—so to keep things interesting, DeGroot sometimes puts their food inside giant empty water bottles, where they mix it in with ice and then throw it into the water. Then the otters have to figure out how to chase down the jug and extract the food from it. You might think this would be torture, but Thelma had it dialed in, and knew exactly how to get her food out. She had super dextrous otter hands, BTW.

• Sea otters have a million hairs per square inch. Their coats are so dense that their skin never even gets wet. They are also bigger and fatter than river otters... but their heads are the same size! Adorable! Sea otters, we love you.

• Otter birth control exists! But it also expires :( The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tells zoos not to breed their sea otters, as there are already too many orphaned baby sea otters in existence. So Thelma and Eddie were hooked up with a type of implanted birth control a while back. But then—surprise!—Thelma got pregnant anyway! Luckily, a Georgia zoo took in their baby, Oz. "This is the zoo's way of showing that no contraceptive is foolproof!" said Amy Cutting, the animal curator for the zoo's North America section.

• Here's a good quote to keep on hand for future reference:

"Sea otters just look silly on land." —Amy Cutting

AWESTRUCK Zoo visitors: DELIGHTED by the sight of a real live sea otter.
  • THUNDERSTRUCK Oregon Zoo patrons: DELIGHTED and ASTONISHED!

• Everything happens in slow motion when you see a sea otter in real life. The first time we entered the back of the exhibit and saw Eddie blissfully floating on his back in his holding pool, adorably rubbing his face with his tiny paws, everything got extremely real. And it only got better.

• Speaking of Eddie: Male sea otters are very territorial. While he's mellowed out in his old age, Eddie kept his eye on us the entire time, and we were told to stay a few feet back from the chain-link fence that bordered Eddie's pool. Erik was intimidated beyond words. (This is why there are no pictures of Eddie.)

• There are two different kinds of sea otters: Northern sea otters and southern sea otters. Northern sea otters, which live along the coasts of Washington and Alaska, are about 10-15 pounds heavier/fatter than southern sea otters, which live along the California coast. The Oregon coast is tragically bereft of sea otters: After having been hunted to extinction for their pelts along Oregon's coasts in 1906, Oregon's sea otter population has never permanently reestablished. Sometimes sea otters will visit Oregon, but they usually only stay a few days. Good job ruining everything, Oregonians of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

• Even in captivity, sea otters are hardened sea warriors. Thelma and Eddie were both raised in captivity after being abandoned in the wild at very young age—meaning they had little interaction with their mothers. But they still have instinctual knowledge when it comes to cracking open sea urchins on rocks and diving deep in their exhibit pools. Also, Thelma has one lung and she doesn't even care.

• Sea otters swim on their backs while river otters swim on their bellies. Now you know.

• Here's something kind of amazing and/or gross: Sea otters' skin is about as loose on their bodies as a sweatshirt is on a human. That means sea otters can turn 180 degrees within their skin. Moving on!

RIVER OTTERS

Julie Christie, senior keeper of the zoo's North America exhibits, gave us an up-close look at the zoo's two young, frisky river otters—Tilly and B.C. ("B.C.", FYI, is short for "Buttercup," despite the fact B.C. is a male. We did not ask the potentially sensitive question as to why a male river otter was named "Buttercup.")

TILLY AND B.C. We are not entirely sure which one is which.
  • TILLY AND B.C. We are not entirely sure which one is which.

Here's what we learned about river otters:

• River otters destroy everything. That's why they can't have nice things. Except sometimes they get clumps of grass, which Julie gives to them to play with. They promptly destroyed said clumps of grass, dragging them into the water and then tearing them apart. River otters: THEY DESTROY EVERYTHING.

• River otters move extremely quickly. Here's how we decided to split labor for our trip to the zoo: Alex, a hardened, razor-sharp news reporter, would interview the zookeepers and take notes; Erik, a halfwit who watches movies for a living, would gawk and take pictures. Alex did a fine job with her duties, while Erik failed spectacularly at getting even a single in-focus photo of the river otters. In his defense, and again: River otters move extremely quickly. And it wasn't for lack of trying: Erik took like 4,000 pictures, it's just that most of them turned out like this:

RIVER OTTERS, PROBABLY Next time we are bringing along a competent photographer.
  • RIVER OTTERS, PROBABLY Next time we are bringing along a competent photographer.

• Compared to sea otters, river otters are smaller, more svelte, and way more friendly with humans and with each other. They sleep at the same time and play together all day long—and somehow don't get sick of each other! Christie said she was actually worried that Tilly and B.C. spend too much time together; she's planning to separate them more and more over time, despite the threats this brings to their adorability status.

• That "more svelte" part? Unlike sea otters' million hairs per square inch, river otters only have 60,000 hairs per square inch. That's like Robin Williams compared to Justin Bieber! If they were otters.

• And speaking of friendliness, river otters are actually encouraged to breed in captivity. And it's apparently horrifying to watch. "It's pretty intense. We were worried that B.C. was going to drown Tilly at some points, but she was okay with it," said Christie. The pair mated in the spring to the joy—and terror—of zoo visitors. "Some parents told their kids that they were just playing. Others hurried them off," said Cutting. "There's definitely a certain population of visitors who like that stuff, though."

• "A certain population of visitors who like that stuff." Weird.

• On that note: Tilly MAY have adorable river otter babies in October! We will keep you updated!

• River otters are extremely playful. Goldfish, Zamboni ice shavings, makeshift otter dens, floating platforms, dumb clumps of grass—you name it, and river otters will make it their new favorite thing. At one point Christie dumped a bucketful of live goldfish into the river otters' pond, at which point Tilly and B.C. quickly, skillfully, and gracefully hunted down each and every last one, swallowing them whole like heartless goldfish slayers.

• Both river otters kept coming up to say hi and they kept getting super close to us!

CLOSE ENCOUNTER OF THE FURRED KIND Confession: We almost stole a river otter.
  • CLOSE ENCOUNTER OF THE FURRED KIND Confession: We almost stole a river otter.

• Tilly likes to chase her tail sometimes. She catches it! And then chews on it!

TILLY An otter! Chasing her tail! LIFE DOES NOT GET ANY BETTER
  • TILLY An otter! Chasing her tail! LIFE DOES NOT GET ANY BETTER

• Okay, so Eddie and Thelma were totally great and all, and we love them, but they kind of didn't care—like, at all—about Otter Friday. The river otters, though? They were so excited they were going to be on Blogtown!

STRIKE A POSE Sometimes river otters will pose for photographs! Erik will still manage to take a crappy picture.
  • STRIKE A POSE Sometimes otters will pose for pictures! Erik will still manage to take a crappy photo.

Which brings us, alas, to the end of this very special edition of Otter Friday. Big thanks to Amy Cutting, Jenny DeGroot, Julie Christie, Danielle Kulczyk, and Hova Najarian at the Oregon Zoo for having us and putting up with our dumb questions and incessant "Awwwwww!" noises. And thanks to Thelma for being so photogenic, B.C. and Tilly for being so stoked to hang out with us, and Eddie for not attacking us even though he could smell our fear.

See you next Otter Friday! (Which, after this week, will probably be a slight disappointment. But it will still be the best thing on the internet.)

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