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  • November 22nd, 2019

CREATURE FEATURE

By Joel M. Vance

 

In1954 a film hit the silver screen (and it was silver in those days—black and white) which presaged an event that recently went on a few yards from the window I’m looking out as I write these words. All over the country, testosterone-poisoned male teenagers drooled over a young actress named Julie Adams as she (pardon the suggestive phrasing) breaststroked frantically to escape the deadly clutches of the Creature From the Black Lagoon.

 

We drooled every bit as copiously as the creature itself as the lissome Ms. Adams in her (unfortunately, for the days before far more revealing movie costumes, and again forgive the cheap pun) titillated us with her chaste white bathing suit.

 

Perhaps it was this memorable 1950s horror movie that inspires my lifelong fascination with air breathing creatures who choose to live in aquatic environments. After all some time back, the first of them escaped the ocean, crawled up on land, developed legs and the ability to think progressively. The ones left behind in the primal ooze became politicians.

 

All of this is prelude to what this blog is about, not confessing youthful  lustful thoughts (as opposed to geriatric lustful thoughts) but about a wildlife encounter I never thought I would experience.

 

A river otter appeared on our pond. My wife, Marty, insists on calling  the one acre body of water a lake, but whatever the designation it recently became occupied by a river otter. Possibly it was a young male searching for new territory, as well as searching for a female with whom to set up housekeeping. I originally wished them well and prosperity— but, the more I learned about otters….not on my pond.

 

Young wildlife males frequently go walkabout from territory dominated by older males, searching for otterly unoccupied terrain. A long time back, biologists, documented a young white tailed buck that had traveled at least 100 miles from near Kansas City, to central Missouri. Bullfrogs and snapping turtles frequently migrate cross country looking for a pond such as ours. We welcome the bullfrogs, but the snappers can go elsewhere. An otter, while evidence of a wildlife reintroduction success, also is a major problem waiting to happen.

 

We have plenty of bluegills and far too many young largemouth bass, so this otter had a set table for as long as it was allowed to sport where we swim in summer and ice skate in winter. Son Andy was less welcoming at the prospect of the otter deciding to overindulge on either of the eight pound largemouth bass that he has caught and released several times over the last couple of years. And the more I learned about otter ecology, the less thrilled I was by our visitor.

 

Likewise, there are a number of channel catfish that are nearly as large as the otter and I hoped that there would not be a mini confrontation like Godzilla versus Rodin beneath the waters of our pond/lake. 

 

I once attended an otter release and the animals, confined in cages, awaiting their introduction to new homes, were not happy and there was much snarling and display of teeth, accustomed to ripping flesh from prey animals. Once the gates flapped open, the animals didn’t stick around to be patted and fussed over, they lit a shuck for the water and, like creature from the Black Lagoon, were gone in an eyeblink.

 

The release was part of a Conservation Department effort to restore otters to Missouri, one of a number of outstandingly successful wildlife re-introductions.  The idea of a restoration program began in 1980 and took root in 1982 with the release of a few otters caught by a Cajun trapper in Louisiana. At the time there were estimated less than 100 otters left in Missouri, remnants of a once common animal, relegated to the to the equally almost vanished wetlands of the Bootheel.

 

The introduction of wildlife into unfamiliar habitat carries with it risks as proved by history. For every ringnecked pheasant success, there is a disaster like the starling or the gypsy moth that proves to be irretrievably misguided. It makes sense to try to restore an animal once native to the habitat, but not to introduce some creature either ill-suited to or competitive with the resident ecosystem.

 

Missouri has become a leading state for whitetailed deer and wild turkeys, both native to the state, and both outstanding reintroduction successes. The late John Lewis, godfather of the wild turkey reintroduction program, told me early on he would be happy if half the state’s counties developed a turkey population. Today, the big birds proliferate statewide, and the spring turkey season is nearly as celebrated as the fall deer season.  Chances are a wild turkey will grace next week’s Thanksgiving table on hundreds if not thousands of Missouri households.

 

The long-term goal was to establish a population of perhaps 10,000 otters statewide. Over the next 11 years, the conservation department released 845 otters in 43 streams in 35 of the state’s 114 counties. The otters, horny rascals that they are, responded with a frenzy of copulation and began multiplying like especially virulent bacteria in a petri dish. In a few short years the population topped 15,000 statewide and not only were river otters once again viable members of the wildlife community, they rapidly were becoming a potential disaster.

 

In fact, my otter, if it were to take up even semipermanent residence, would be a ticking time bomb. Dave Hamilton, the biologist in charge of the otter reintroduction program, had this to say about the Frankensteinian critter he had pioneered: “the state’s numerous farm ponds, most of which contain a combination of largemouth bass, bluegill and channel catfish, provide lots of recreational angling for kids and adults. We sure didn’t see these ponds as providing good habitat for otters, nor did we see the impending train wreck that otter depredation of the fish in these ponds would cause.”

 

Hamilton wrote that calls began to pour in about farm ponds being ravaged. “We now recommend that pond owners who are at all worried about their fish shoot otters when they show up. All we ask is that they contact us if they do so.” I was extremely loath to plug our new visitor, even in the interest of preserving Andy’s largemouth trophies or our cruising catfish. Hamilton said, “otters especially target hand fed catfish.” And we have shoveled many a sack of catfish chow off the end of our dock to the delight both of us and visitors—and, of course to the delight of the gate mouth channel cats who gather there. Our otter was inviting extreme sanction when Andy glimpsed a line of bubbles emanating from beneath the dock. The invading animal was asking for it.

 

Long time conservation department biologist Glenn Chambers became the foremost spokesperson for river otters nationwide by raising a pair in his home and traveling statewide in Missouri as well as in  other states to talk about otters and show off his frisky pair to the delight of audiences. In his earliest otter shows, Glenn would let the otters roam freely through the audience, but it quickly occurred to him that, no matter how cute and friendly they might seem, they still were wild animals and the specter of having one of them chew some toddler’s arm off at the elbow motivated him to restrict their freestyle antics to the stage.

 

He shared the stage with both the otters and a large tank of water into which the animals could dip, especially when he released small fish. It was the equivalent of throwing a training dummy for a Labrador retriever— the voracious predator instantly kicked in and the baitfish was history.

 

Living with a pair of river otters is not the same as having family pets, like dogs or cats. They are demanding and caring for one becomes pretty much like having a new baby in the family— having two is like having twins. It’s not a matter of training them to obey commands like sit, stay and come. Glenn had to become part of their family as much as they did his. He slept with them and adapted to otter time in order to become, basically, daddy otter in their family.

 

When it became obvious that reintroduced river otters were not only a restoration triumph, but a budding depredation problem, Glenn understandably was conflicted. When Ozark smallmouth bass anglers began to bombard the Conservation Department with bitter complaints about otters having decimated the bass population in their favorite streams, Glenn said, “if an otter wants to catch a fish, that fish is a goner.”

 

No one was more associated with river otters in modern times than Glenn, a Renaissance man if ever there was one. Glenn sadly died in 2017 after a lifetime creating an incredible conservation legacy—one that included inclusion in the storied ranks of Missouri’s master conservationists. He and his wife Jeannie and a pair of river otters traveled more than 800,000 miles and entertained and educated more than 1 million people over 13 years after his retirement from the Conservation Department in 1995.

 

I don’t know about the creature from the Black Lagoon. It may still be there but Julie Adams was 92 years old when she swam into cinematic history earlier this year.

 

Much in the manner of the cat that ate the canary and is found with feathers sticking to its lips, Andy witnessed our otter munching on a midsize largemouth bass and, acting as prosecutor, jury and judge, retrieved his 12 gauge turkey gun and committed ottercide. Otters often travel in pairs, even as many as four, in search of new munchies, so we can only hope that our late otter did not send an ottergram home inviting family and friends over for Thanksgiving dinner at our expense.  We haven’t seen any further otter sign so perhaps our invader was solo.  In requiem understand that its fate is at the same time, a source of regret and relief.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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