What You Otter Know About Otters

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If you live in Cape Town, one hot topic of conversation around the dinner table right now is…otters. Are they just cute ‘n cuddly creatures looking for love in all the wrong places, and why should we really be concerned about our behaviour around them?

Cape Town is home to only one species of otter; the Cape clawless otter (Aonyx capensis); also known as the groot otter (“big otter”), for it being the second largest freshwater otter on the planet and the third largest otter in all.

With its long, sturdy tail, soft brown fur and white facial markings, our otters are unmistakeable as they lope along the high-tide line foraging and scavenging for crabs, small fish, worms and all manner of tasty crustaceans.

True to their name, their five fingers on each partially-webbed hand lack claws but are ideally adapted for searching under rocks and foraging in soft sand and digging in mud. The otters’ hind feet have rudimentary claws on only three of their toes.

Boy otters are slightly larger than girl otters but they don’t seem to mind much as they will pair up only for the act of making more otters (ie mating) in late summer, after which they each go their separate ways; the males leaving the females to raise the litter of pups as a single parent entirely on their own. Pups are born in litters of usually around two to five after a gestation period of almost two months.

At around a year old, the young are considered fully independent and are able to go out into the world and look after themselves. They may stick around to stake out a closely guarded, fiercely defended neighbouring territory with up to five of their relatives each having their own range within that area.

What makes for good otter territory?

Areas close to a permanent water source that offer them a good degree of protection and cover are most sought after.

On our urban edge, the city’s interconnecting system of stormwater drains that outlet into the sea, are much loved by local otter residents. They will use these “underground highways” to commute between suburbs, to meet other otters in, give birth in and are handy for escaping predators.

Incredibly agile swimmers, they are not the fastest-moving animals when it comes to moving about on dry land and are almost clumsy, which makes them prone to run-ins with domestic dogs, cars, automatic gates, and humans.

Around breeding time each year, otters make the news as they go about their lives in amongst the world of people, mostly paying us no attention at all. If only we offered them the same courtesy.

Pictures of people cuddling an otter in a St. James tidal pool lit up social media channels recently, outraging animal activists while delighting locals and tourists who cannot help but marvel at the close interaction otters seem to offer us.

We consider that wild animals have no interest in our need for the social media currency of Likes, Shares, Comments and heart-shaped emojis that our interactions with wild animals seems to generate, and fuel.

Our stance is that wild animals are exactly that – wild animals and while they might tolerate having to interrupt their breakfast hunt for a quick selfie, eventually they too will have enough of it or will find themselves inadvertently cornered by a well-meaning amateur film maker and they will do what every wild instinct within them commands them to do when cornered by something scary – defend themselves.

We’ve all been witness to the headlines: the moment a wild animal hurts a human out of defending itself against our actions (which it just did not understand), often brings about the swift end to that animal’s life at the hands of the local authorities who deem the animal a liability to itself and to us; the rate-paying citizens.

Perhaps it is time we pause and re-frame our interactions with the wild animals we share our beautiful city with and offer them the same sort of respect we offer each other when it comes to being good neighbours.
Otters are part of the weasel family (also known as Mustelids)

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