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Interview with Deidre Flaherty from the Ross Park Zoo:
Louie and Sarah Just Want to Have Fun    

        Louie and Sarah, two African Clawless Otters originally from the Washington zoo, are siblings. They traveled to Binghamton, New York in 1994, where they now reside in the Ross Park Zoo under the care of Deidre Flaherty. Otternet was lucky enough to get an interview with Deidre and visit Louie and Sarah in June of 1999.

Otternet: What makes these African Clawless Otters different than the North American River Otters that used to live in this exhibit?

Deidre: They are similar in many ways, but they are a lot more industrious. Louie and Sarah are very busy. Aside from being larger than the North American River Otter, you can see they only have claws on two digits. Their hands are webbed and they use their front hands, just as hands. Their dexterity is incredible. They will sit there and just pick at the rocks. We put all these plants in the exhibit we thought they they would not be attracted to, and they promptly dug one up after another and threw them into the pond. When they eat they use their front paws while river otter eat right out of the dish. They will pick up a piece and hold it.

click on picture for closeup

They are more colorful and interact more with the public than our North American River Otters did. The African Clawless Otters also have very large canine teeth, much larger than a river otter. And their back feet are more heavily padded.

We had North American River Otters here for over 10 years, and probably the biggest difference is that they were not nearly as destructive as African Clawless Otters !

Otternet: Their front paws certainly do look a lot like hands - and they use them to hold what they are eating just like we humans do ! We can see how this helps get them into more trouble !

Otternet: What are their personalities ?

Deidre: Louie is the troublemaker...a lot more inquisitive...will go and inspect something first. He is a lot more aggressive in his touch and will try to bite you if you put your hand near him.
Louie is bigger at 35 pounds than Sarah. One of his favorite activities is to shove rocks in the filtration pipe of his pond.

When we give them hay in the winter, they will pull it out into the exhibit area, and Louie will immediately pack it into the filtration pipe as well. He seems to know exactly what he is doing!

Louie retrieves a stick and leaves to the pool

Sarah is more reserved, she will stand back and watch, and look around a bit before she dives in to something. She is a lot more gentle, too, and even will let you scratch her belly or hold your hand. Sarah is easy to spot since she has a black spot under her chin.

As an example, we gave them crayfish the other morning. At first Sarah had no idea what to do with it. Louie played for it for 30 minutes, threw it in the water and chased it, then threw it again before eating it.

Otternet: What makes them stand apart from your other animals ?

Deidre: They always seem to be having a good time. If they are playing, they never run out of enjoying what they are doing, even when it snows. In the snow they will make slides into the water...run and slide on the ice. Louie and Sarah are very playful. It seems like they really enjoy life. They are having such a good time, sometimes it makes you want to be with them. They could be playing with a leaf and having the time of their life. Even when they walk they have such carefree movements.

They are also fascinating to watch. They will approach people coming to see them and perform/play for the public.

Otternet: How do they get along together ?

We were concerned about this since Sarah did not get along with other siblings she was with before coming to the Ross Park Zoo. But after working with them to create a positive introduction (lots of food to divert their attention helps), they really do get along well together now.

After feeding when come out into the exhibit they will actually hold hands and spin around in the water. They also swim and chase each other and are really playful. Sometimes they will grab each others mouths and spin that way, too.

Otternet: What is your experience leading to Curator ?

Deidre: I have been here 13 years now. Currently as Curator I supervise all the zookeepers at Ross Park Zoo. Previously, I worked in the Houston Zoo, working as Assistant Supervisor, Primates and also Cats and Bears for 4 years. Previous to Houston I worked 10 years in business, before going back to college to get a degree in Biological Science

Otternet: What advice do you have for young people interested in a career working with animals ?

Deidre: The earlier you realize you want to work with animals the better. I suggest a college with a strong cooperative work program with local experience working with animals.

Be persistent ! This is a very competitive field but there are lot of avenues to go down. In my view, nothing takes the place of field work. Volunteer work is very important. We have a shadowing program with high school students and college students interested in Animal Science, Biology or Pre-veterinarian specialties.

Also young people should be aware that a lot of the job is cleaning up after the animals, there is a lot of manual work.

Otternet: How are zoos controlled to ensure animals are treated properly ?

Deidre: Each zoo is inspected yearly by the USDA - they must meet the minimum requirements. If an accredited AZA facility, which most zoos are, every 5 years they are also inspected by 2-3 people from records to guidance with a very restrictive review of everything going on at the zoo. The AZA tells you at their annual meeting if you passed or not.

Curious Louie inspects Otternet equipment

Otternet: Thank you and the Ross Park Zoo so much for your time with us today. We greatly enjoyed it! I'm sure our readers will enjoy hearing about Louis and Sarah as well !

The Ross Park Zoo otter page can be accessed online at Tuxedo Junction.
Check out movies with Louie on the OTTERNET home page !

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