photo by Flickr user Matt B
I love otters.
I really, really love otters.
As I typed this blog post, I was looking at my otter tape dispenser and the otter stuffed animal my mom got me from the Denver Zoo. (In case you are wondering: Yes, I am 34 years old, and yes, this happened recently.) I have already purchased my wall calendar for 2019, and I can’t wait to be able to stare at the otter cuteness for 365 days – my only regret is that it’s not a leap year. I wear this tank top proudly.
My family and close friends know of my utter fascination with otters, so they send me pictures and videos of adorable otters holding hands while floating, playing with pebbles, and booping each other on the nose while they play. My husband always knows when I receive these messages from my squeal of delight. He also knows that if we ever win the lottery, I am getting an otter and putting it in my bathtub.
I love otters so much that my sister told me she would pay for me to go to an otter experience for my birthday. Looking into several otter experiences, like this one at the North Georgia Zoo or The Sea Otter Encounter at the Georgia Aquarium, taught me that I’m not the only person who can’t get enough of otters. Aquariums and habitats around the nation offer similar programs to meet all this aquatic mammal enthusiasm. For instance, you can swim with otters at this organization in California for a mere $550. This encounter is extremely popular; there is one slot left on Feb. 13, 2019 as of this writing, but the rest of 2019 is booked solid. I am seriously considering a quick trip to the West Coast.
I traveled to our office in Stamford, Connecticut a few weeks ago, and my otter love came up in passing. Our president, Larry Elkin, was intrigued and suggested I write a blog post about otters. (Incidentally, he shares a name with Larry, the seductive otter, whom I feel I am obliged to include in this post.) While our blog regularly covers a lot of nonfinancial topics, I wasn’t immediately sure what angle I would take, so I knew I would have to do some research before I got started.
Imagine my shock when I came across this article from Vox: “The case against otters: necrophiliac, serial-killing fur monsters of the sea.” I read the article with tears in my eyes. My beloved otters – capable of such dastardly deeds as attacking people, killing monkeys in a shared zoo habitat and doing unspeakable things to baby seals? Male sea otters are evidently so brutal to females during mating that one study found that about 11 percent of sea otters found dead on the California coast from 1998 to 2001 were killed by trauma associated with mating.
This was not what I had in mind when I planned to dig deeper into otters. The data suggests that they can be “otterly” (sorry, I had to) vicious in the wild. In fairness to the otters, just under half of the recorded attacks on humans were attributed to rabies, which can make all sorts of animals unusually aggressive, but everything else is just otters doing what comes naturally.
Learning about otter aggression made me wonder whether other cute, “cuddly” wild animals have a dark side.
Once I started looking, I found case after case of so-called “adorable” animals behaving badly. In 2008 a Chinese man was mauled by a panda named Yang Yang after he climbed into a cage at the Beijing Zoo, wanting to cuddle. Gu Gu, another panda in the Beijing Zoo, had bitten three people as of 2009. Flawed logic seems to make some people think that because pandas are herbivores, they won’t attack a human who encroaches on their habitat, but these incidents suggest that even though Yang Yang and Gu Gu don’t crave human flesh as a snack, they will still defend their territory.
I found several more anecdotes about furry friends who may actually be foes. For instance, Adelie penguins have the same predilections for mating with dead carcasses as otters. Dolphins seemingly kill porpoises for sport, as the porpoise is not part of a dolphin’s diet. Lions who want to mate with a female who already has a cub will maul the cub to death. Margay ocelots mimic the sounds of a baby tamarin monkey in distress, then kill and eat adult tamarins when they come to search for the “baby.” I could go on with showing how cute animals are total jerks, but I think everyone gets the point; if you really need more, just Google “cute but deadly.”
So what do I do with this newfound knowledge? Do I get rid of all my otter stuff and cancel that trip to California to swim with otters that I may or may not have booked as a “research trip” for this post? (For the record, Larry, I didn’t.)
Absolutely not. While it is jarring to look into the seeming depravity of some of our favorite cuddly creatures, it is important to remember that they are wild animals, not the domesticated dogs and cats who happily share our homes. Animals, regardless of how adorable human beings find them, do whatever is necessary to survive and will rely on their instincts whenever they feel threatened. They need to secure food. They need to protect their young. They need to survive in order for their species to carry on.
We, as humans, shouldn’t impose our ideas of morality and humanity on wild creatures. As a species, we are inclined to bond with all sorts of creatures (and sometimes objects), projecting our humanity onto them in the process. But letting this tendency go too far can lead to rude awakenings like mine – or worse, if people put themselves in danger by forgetting to respect a wild animal’s nature.
Additionally, we should avoid needlessly encroaching on their territory. If I came upon a wild river otter in the reservoirs in Boulder, Colorado, close to where I live, it would be a terrible idea to run up and try to pet it. The “look, but don’t touch” rule we learn as children should always apply to wild animals. And as the pandas at the Beijing Zoo demonstrate, even a wild animal in captivity is still a wild animal.
Most humans believe we are superior to our fellow animals. Unfortunately, I didn’t need to do much research to discover humans behaving badly. We lash out and attack when we feel threatened, often with language and sometimes with violence. It should not surprise us that even the fluffiest creatures can be vicious and dangerous.
I will continue to love otters, but I will also respect them as animals that do what they must to survive. I avoid the temptation to judge their behavior based on my own moral compass. But I will also remember to use that compass to stay respectful to fellow members of my species, even if I feel temporarily threatened. Unless you touch my children. Then I may have to maul you.
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