Of Otters and Men

While I am no longer a zookeeper, I still volunteer at my old zoo as time allows. But here’s what I know from experience:


During my years there, we would get several phone calls and emails each week asking us if we could take in a pet or care for an animal that someone “rescued.” Most often, we turned people away, not because of lack of want, but because we lacked space, time, money, and other resources required to provide these animals the care they would need.


Every animal that enters a zoo collection has to be approved by a committee and put through a mandatory quarantine period prior to integration. If an animal is donated, and that is the only way the zoo acquires an animal from the public without the rare occasion of purchase (such as in the case of domesticated animals for petting zoos), the person that drops that animal off is required to sign paperwork that states that they are surrendering the animal to the care of the zoo.


If it were up to a zookeeper, every animal would get a home with one of us. The animals become our children; we learn their quirks, their favorite foods, how long they sleep, and what toys give them comfort. We spend more time with these animals than we do with our own families. Animals don't know Christmas from last Tuesday. They require food and care 365 days a year.


So when I read the article in the Houma Courier today regarding the poor couple who was just trying to get health care for the baby North American River Otter (Lontra canadensis) they rescued last year, it got my hackles up.


Shockingly, local Veterinarians refused to provide care to the otter, because of Louisiana laws that do not allow civilians to care for and keep non-endangered wildlife without a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries issued rehabilitation permit. The couple received “little help from the LDWF” because river otters are not an endangered species. As a last resort, the couple drove the otter to the zoo in the hopes that he would receive the care he needed. They signed the necessary papers and left “Chip” in the good hands of zoo staff.


[Tommy] Chaisson said zoo officials didn't make it clear to him what he was signing, and he was worried for Chip's life. Now he's upset because he said he's had a difficult time getting any information from the zoo or from Wildlife and Fisheries about Chip's condition or what, if anything, can be done to get the otter back home to the bayou.

“He signed a legal donation document, and we didn't have any indication that he wanted to visit the otter or take him back,” [Sarah] Burnette [zoo spokesperson] said.


Suddenly, the couple is astounded that the zoo will not give Chip back to his family (now that he is healed, mind you). They didn’t know that they had surrendered him permanently to the zoo! No one told them that when they signed on the dotted line, they were turning their precious baby over for good. Even more shocking? The comments from the readers at the end of the article.


Does the family plan to reimburse the zoo for the medical, care, and housing costs the zoo provided since January 23? What happens if the otter gets sick again?


Otters are social animals. They need constant interaction with other otters. They are carnivores- they have been known to bite. Male otters do not reach sexual maturity until two to three years of age.


But Chaisson said that Chip was a free, docile and happy otter living in his natural environment along Bayou Grand Caillou, and they couple just want to bring him home.

“This is an animal from our habitat that we keep in our habitat,” Chaisson said. “He wasn't a pet. He's not a caged animal and he's not a mean animal. As he grew, he grew to love us more and we grew to love him more.”


A few months ago, BlogHer ran a post about the damages of keeping wild animals as pets. At the time, I wanted to say more, but I said this:


As a former zookeeper, I wholeheartedly agree. We constantly had people calling us to take their "pet" [whatever] because they had "rescued" it. People just assume that they are doing good for these animals, and that when they get tired of caring for it, it isn't cute anymore, or when the animal causes harm to something else, that a zoo or rehab facility "can just take it." No, they can't. There are approval and quarantine processes, money required for care, etc. Please, please think about this, people: these animals got along just fine before humans started interfering.


Bottom line: Chip is a wild animal. While he may appreciate the social interaction he gets with humans at this point in his life, he will mature and instinct will take over. The staff at the zoo and the officials at LDWF are not denying the family out of heartlessness, or even selfishness.


Image from www.worldwildlifefund.org



Chip is recovering well in the quarantine building at the zoo. He is being cared for by a devoted keeper, and zoo staff are actively seeking the best place to be his permanent home.


Nikki Buskey wrote the full article in the Houma Courier and can be reached at nicole.buskey@houmatoday.com.

Cynthia M. wrote the Damages of Keeping Wild Animals as Pets post on BlogHer on December 14, 2011.

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