Swimming With Otters: ‘A Gimmick With Real Bite’

A fortnight ago a reporter for the website Care2 contacted me about a place in Southern California where the public can pay to swim with otters. Where an older press enquiry ‘Can An Otter Take Down A Human?’ tickled the funny bone and led to a serious response; the question ‘Should You Swim With Otters?’ really played on my mind.

swimming with otters

A scan of the Nurtured by Nature website shows the non-profit organization aims to ‘foster hope and well-being to children with life threatening to terminal illness through physical interactions with nature’. For the past six years, the ‘Otter Experience’ has been a unique $200 encounter claiming to the facilitate such interactions.

Having made no secret that otters are my animal obsession, I would have undoubtedly enjoyed this experience as a child. As an adult, the experience would also be unforgettable. However, with a specialist knowledge of otters, and experience of meeting and working with captive-bred tame otters, a childhood enthusiasm is not enough.  Thinking carefully, I responded to reporter Natalia Lima:

As much as I want to like the idea, I struggle to see how this benefits otters or education. Petting zoos generally prioritise people and turn animals into props. People do not, and should not, swim with otters in the wild. The public does not strip off and splash around with otters in zoos. This ‘experience’ is a novelty fraught with potential dangers.

I have been bitten by hand-reared Asian small-clawed otters. They have needle-like teeth which can go through the bone. One of these captive-bred otters could quite easily bite through the finger of a child, or cause other injuries through biting. Even seemingly tame exotic animals retain their wild instincts.

When the article was published, the owners of Nurtured by Nature welcomed my points, but one statement by owner Kevin Yates made me feel uneasy:

We believe that when people have proper interactions with animals, it creates a bond and a care for those animals. We want people to learn to care about animals, care about different species, care about water, recycling.

The thought that this ‘otter experience’ was considered one of the ‘proper interactions with animals’, and would help people ‘care about different species’ did not make sense. Was I being too harsh? I had to gather the opinions of other otter specialists from across the world.

Dr Nicole Duplaix, Chair of the IUCN-SSC Otter Specialist Group, wrote:

An unfortunate idea. An otter’s idea of a kiss often involves sharp teeth and suddenly the whole group is biting and screaming. Give otters space not cuddles!

Dr Paul Yoxon, Head of Operations at the International Otter Survival Fund (IOSF), replied:

Hi Daniel, no it is not a good idea to swim with otters. They are not only wild animals and should stay wild they carry pathogens in the mouth that can give you a nasty infection. I was put in hospital for a week and nearly lost my hand from being bitten by a small cub.

Wildlife photographer, filmmaker and TV presenter Charlie Hamilton James, added:

If they’re in captivity the otters probably have fun swimming with people – but they shouldn’t be in captivity and especially not as a business opportunity. I used to swim with my captive otter but she was a special case as she could not be released into the wild. I needed to do what I could to make her day more fun and she seemed to enjoy a fun swim together. Otters are great fun but they are not toys. Off to bother otters now on the Snake River in Wyoming – nice winters fun.

Orphaned otter cubs do need to be taught how to swim. Dr Oldemar Carvalho-Junior currently has six Neotropical otters at the Animal Refugee-Scientific Breeding in Brazil. Carvalho-Junior explained:

At least three of them we need to teach how to swim and dive. How? Going to the water, holding the otter and playing together. They wouldn’t go to the pool by themselves. I also used to take them to the lake, in front of the Institute. The cubs would only go to the water if we were together. I can tell how happy the otters were when we were together playing in the water, and how important it was for them to learn how to swim and dive.

He continued:

The public wouldn’t have the access to them. I don’t think this would be a good idea. If the Neotropical otter is happy, it bites! If it is sad, it bites! If it is hungry, it bites. If it is angry, it bites too. Actually, we don’t care about the bites. We all have Neotropical otter scars and marks that we proudly carry with us for life. However, these otters wouldn’t behave in the same way with people that they do not know. They develop a deep affection with the people that take care of them. That’s why, today, we are working on a plan to return future baby otters to the wild.

It is quite clear that the ‘Otter Experience’ does not provide learning support or an emotional bond to otter cubs, and that otter professionals are opposed to this novelty encounter. The so-called therapeutic benefit of interacting with this animal in this environment is on a par to swimming with a pool full of dogs, koi carp, or rubber ducks. It is a novelty. A gimmick with real bite.

For me, the ‘Otter Experience’ sets an irresponsible precedent. Why would one petting zoo think they can facilitate an encounter in a better way than any others? They cannot. Is the ‘Otter Experience’ really that much different from the $215 Dolphin Interaction Program at SeaWorld San Diego? No. Why would one non-profit organisation think it knows more about the welfare needs of otters than global experts? They do not. Why would anyone include the ‘Otter Experience’ as being one of the ‘proper interactions with animals’? They should not. It is not. The public should not swim with otters.

Please consider the welfare of animals before paying for animal encounters, and please share this article to help raise awareness about the misuse of animals in captivity.


2 thoughts on “Swimming With Otters: ‘A Gimmick With Real Bite’

  1. I think this article is pointed and details an issue in the animal care industry that should be collectively addressed. That being said, the videos do not reinforce the content.

    Otherwise, this activity – along with countless animal encounters – can easily go wrong very quickly. Otters are not domestic. They do not view us as their master – imagine engaging a female with pups, or a territorial male in this activity. The unpredictable nature of otter behavior is dangerous – bites, clawing and their sheer ability to outmaneuver us in water and on land are cause for concern. Finally, we do not possess a means of calming down an otter that has gotten excited as owners can usually do with a dog.

    This activity does nothing to promote conservation…it encouraged people to try to engage otters in their wild habitats which can certainly be devastating – most likely to the otters through habitat disturbance, pestilence and interaction with people’s pets (i.e. the hiker that brings along the dog).

    I would find it challenging to sympathize with someone that gets a disease from or is wounded by a wild animal that they engage…natural selection works.

    This argument extends to the wider range of wild animals often used in these encounters: cetaceans, pinnipeds, elasmobranchs and pachyderms all come to mind.


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