Searching for Otters (in the U.S.)
By June Gerrard

Editor's Note: June Gerrard is a Warden at the
Kylerhea Otter Haven on Scotland's Isle of Skye.

Neil was traveling to the U.S. on business. Myself, not wanting to miss the trip of a lifetime, hung onto his coat tails. First stop for R&R was hot, arid Arizona except it was not very hot. Dreaming of cactus and deserts and cowboys on horseback programmed from Westerns. Far from reality. Instead we arrived at Flagstaff to two feet of snow and fifteen degrees below zero! Drove down to Sedona through deep sunset red rock canyons sprinkled with piñon and snow. A friend had heard reports of otters decimating stocks at a local fish farm. This could be my chance to see river otters in the wild. We drove down to the Game and Fish farm. Brazenly I walked up to the office door and went inside. Wandering through the corridors I found a couple of guys having a coffee so I introduced myself and asked about their otters. One guy explained where the fish have been taken from and how many. A lot. Bit strange for a single otter, but he insists that he has seen the otter in the pond while he has been working. Cheeky as well as greedy. So off we trot down to the said pond. We find a row of eight purpose built ponds all the same size. Some lined with butyl liners to prevent erosion, others left au naturel. Hundreds of red muddy footprints surround the first three butyl-lined ponds, then we find piles of scat scattered beside and between. Raccoons. They have had a great time walking around the ponds to find an easy way down the steep banks then sliding the last foot into the water, leaving tell tale muddy skid marks. Thoughtfully the Game and Fish people have left knotted ropes dangling into the water, handy raccoon ladders. Lots of scrub and brush surround the ponds along with piles of cut branches and trees, nice habitat but as yet no otter. We measure and photograph the tracks and take scat samples to analyze and produce a report for the Warden. We don't want otters to be blamed for raccoon banditry. The sixth pond is not lined and the water is beautifully clear with lots of lovely vegetation. Perfect otter habitat. And along the bank in the corner we find a holt. I stick my head down and sniff. A smell of clean damp earth. Empty. Searching around for other otter signs, we find old dry scat but no footprints. Looks like otter has moved on. And so must we.

We now travel south-east heading to New Orleans. We still haven't found otters so we drive along the most southern road in Louisiana, Roadkill Highway. The landscape couldn't be more different from the red rocks and canyons. We are in bayou country. Swamps and wetlands with the patches of low-level dry land, stretching to the horizon. Surely there will be otters here. "Oh sure, there's so many. Here otters are captured and then relocated to other parts of the U.S. in reintroduction programs" I had been told. Otters are still legally hunted here. The road is the only dry ground for a hundred square miles. On the north side the swamp runs faster as it travels from trees and higher ground, slowing as it nears the sea on

Drawing by Bernadette Gangell

the south side of the road. Here there is a parallel channel which was dug out to provide material for the raised road, the landscape then becomes swampy and brackish until it mixes with the sand and the sea. I thought that the only place on earth to contain so much life was the rainforests, I was mistaken. I have never seen so many dead animals in my life. My stomach churns for the first thirty miles, after which we stop to have a closer look at some of the bloody remains. Hundreds of flattened matted raccoons, unidentifiable birds (live herons, egrets and crows fly around us), dozens of nutria, white-tailed deer, and a desiccated alligator. There are probably dead otters around, but they are too mangled to identify. We climb back into the car and ponder. This road isn't busy, there aren't that many towns around here, so why the carnage? We return to the conclusion of the amazingly abundant wildlife. Neil suddenly stops the car and reverses back ten yards. He saw a splosh of an animal diving in the water channel. He thinks it may have been an otter-we wait holding our breath. A sudden splash beside the car and two river otter faces appear looking straight at me! They are so close that Neil can't see them from his seat! Another surfaces ten feet away in the centre of the channel, the other two then leap off into the water and dive. Out of Sight. Wish granted!