The places where rivers meet oceans (estuaries, shorelines and marshes) support some of Earth’s richest biological diversity. On the West Coast this interface supported the evolutionary diversion of sea and river otters, two branches of the weasel family.
Almost extinguished by the fur trade, they have made a comeback (in the case of sea otters, being re-introduced from Alaska). There are currently few sea otters off southern Vancouver Island but river otters are plentiful, despite still being victims of trapping in the upstream wilds.
Lutra canadensis, about a metre long (two-thirds tail), is brown with a pale belly. Web-footed, it lives in waterside dens and forages on land and in water for fish, shellfish, birds and small mammals. Reaching maturity at two years, it lives about 12 in the wild. Females bear two to five kits at a time which stay with her for about a year, learning to forage, swim and hunt underwater (their large lung capacity and specialized circulation allow them to dive for up to four minutes).
Sometimes though, the urban otter doesn’t stay in her watery world. Probably attracted by convenient ponds, she’ll move up from the shoreline into the neighbourhoods. Linda Foubister and Malcolm Crerar, living on the crest of Oak Bay’s King George Terrace, were surprised last April to see one on their front steps.
Several days later, Linda heard loud noises coming from the basement. Fearing some sort of home invader, she gathered her courage and went downstairs to peer nervously into a room off the garage.
There, above the naked rock common in basements of local houses, the eyes of an otter peered back at her. She opened doors, ran back upstairs, and looked out the window to see the creature depart across the garden.
That night Linda and Malcolm heard something on the roof of their garage. An otter, they learned, can make a “huge noise” on a roof at 3 a.m., and Malcolm got up repeatedly to scare it away. It growled, which didn’t make for a peaceful night, yet the next day they saw it relaxing in the sun on the roof as if nothing had happened.
The next day brought chirping sounds from the basement, and investigating with a flashlight, Linda and Malcolm found two chocolate-brown otter babies lying in a nest of pink insulation material. After some hasty Googling, Malcolm put on gloves and transferred the squirming babies to a towel-lined box. But now Mother was absent, “and we were stuck with a box of otters,” says Linda.
Looking out the window they spied Mother looking beseechingly at them from outside. They put the box on the patio and Mom circled it, tipped it, cleaned the babies with her tongue and then lifted one by the scruff of the neck and took it away, leaving the other behind. So, does the couple now have an orphan to care for? Wild ARC reminded them that wild babies are always best left with their mothers.
Luckily, Mom came back having found another hiding place, possibly under the low back deck of the house. At what point the otters finally left Linda and Malcolm don’t know, but there was a major muddy mess to clean up in the basement.
It’s not uncommon for Oak Bay homes near the shoreline to house otters under porches and decks. We build on their native rocks, so they adapt to houses. Like rats and raccoons which compete for the same hiding places, they carry on a secret life among us, dedicated like all animals to bringing up the next generation of their kind.
Barbara Julian is an Oak Bay writer and nature enthusiast.