Humans could learn from animals about coexistence | Island Wildlife | Jan. 7

In 2010, the West Sound Wildlife Shelter took in patients of more than 100 different species. We had the privilege of working to save the lives of chickadees, eagles, coyotes, rabbits, herons, hawks ... and even two baby river otters.

It’s comical how an adorable, furry packet of life like a baby river otter can bring the “oohs” and “aahs” out of our most serious staff and volunteers. You can see a photo of a river otter baby on our website at www.westsoundwildlife.org/Wildlife/Wildlife.html.

River otters are fascinating animals and I want to share a story about them. At West Sound Wildlife, we don’t just care for animals in our hospital; we help people humanely resolve conflicts between themselves and wild animals. The animal lives and the humans get rid of an annoyance.

An otter living under a porch or a house is a typical human/wildlife conflict. Why? Well, otter dens smell really, really bad.

A few days ago we received a call from an islander who has otters living under an old cottage on his property. He wanted our help getting the otters out. We think it’s a mother otter with one or two pups from last year’s litter.

After explaining that it’s illegal for us to remove healthy animals, we gave him our standard advice for persuading otters to find a new home. We were surprised when he called and told us that none of our surefire techniques work, in-cluding playing a radio underneath the cottage at night or installing a light in the crawl space.

But we were sure that our next step would work. We had the owner soak rags in ammonia and put them under the cottage. What happened then? The otters threw the rags back out from under the cottage. “Wow,” we thought, “these are genius otters! We’d better take a look.” OK, granted, we’re kind of animal nerds. But who doesn’t want to meet otters that like music and throw rags at you?

It turns out the owner had called the United States Department of Agriculture before calling us. The USDA had already been out and tried to trap the otters (for relocation). But the otters avoided the traps and the USDA gave up.

When our staff arrived at the cottage, it all became clear. The cottage has no foundation, which means the otters can dig in from any side and avoid traps, and not all of our advice was implemented correctly (the otters didn’t actually throw the rags).

We’ve given the owner further advice – to bury wire 18 or 24 inches deep along the outside of the cottage and install more lights in the crawlspace – and have confidence that the otters will eventually be persuaded to move. The owner will get his cottage back, and the mother otter and her pups will still be alive.

It would be best for the otters if they didn’t have to move. But the reality of life, for both wild animals and humans, is that it often takes compromise on both sides. For us, that involves steps like not using rat poison and keeping our cats inside; for the animals, sometimes it involves finding a new, entirely natural home.

Unfortunately for the animals, it’s usually a one-sided deal – the animals do all of the compromising while our human society does whatever it wants. Please consider taking a bold step right now – make a New Year’s resolution to take one or two actions this year that compromise your own life, even just a bit, so that some wild animals can have a better existence.

The owner of the cottage has taken this pledge – he’s going to keep persuading the otters to leave rather than have them killed. We’ll see if he’s successful. Maybe these really are genius otters and next month I’ll be telling you about how the otters persuaded the owner to move somewhere else.

Kol Medina is executive director of the West Sound Wildlife Shelter.

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