The flat roof of the low shelter was thick with sunbathers enjoying the heat. But they were hardly ever still, jostling for position, looking up alertly at any sound or movement. It only took one to go to exploring and the others were up, following the leader. They stayed close together, whether pausing for another heat-filled doze on a grassy bank, or lingering on the pebbly shore of the pool.
But generally they were always active, scrambling through the thick stems of the gunnera that grew beside the shore, partially screening the water that fell smoothly over two shallow ledges beneath the oak that crowns the enclosure. The fall was greater over the third ledge, the water running musically into the pool beneath.
Tiny islands are created in the water by a mainly submerged tree trunk, but these little pinnacles attract the family of five Asian short-clawed otters who live here when they swap sunbathing for swimming. They move lithely through the water, sometimes sliding straight over the islands, other times squeezing up as a group on one of them, or taking it in turns to stand there, occasionally in pairs but generally singly, imitating the nearby meerkat sentinels.
But they are most at home in the water, whether swimming up as a compact fleet to inspect their visitors or moving in line about their own business. Their acrobatics may start on the surface, but they continue seamlessly underwater, as the otters weave round and roll over each other, creamy bellies flashing more clearly than the sleek brown backs that blend with the water colour.
The young otters slid off their den roof and swarmed down to greet me with great excitement. This faded almost at once as they checked me out and realised I hadn’t come to feed them.
Soon they were snoozing again on a sunny patch of ground, only stirring when their mother arrived. She stood upright beside the fence, staring up at me as she scolded, her little mouth working furiously.
The youngsters couldn’t keep still. They were in and out of the water, one or two of them endlessly playing with a pebble, juggling it from one front paw to the other, imitating the catching of their natural prey, such as molluscs, crabs and other small sea creatures. When they are close it’s easy to see the partial webbing between the short claws of those paws.
Then there was a mass excursion to a rock in the water. They congregated on it, dived off it, glided over it, swam out from it and back again. Soon they moved away restlessly, scrambling up the far side of the waterfall, paddling across it at the top, pausing on the rocks to stare down at the gate and out of the enclosure. Wherever they were they always they kept a sharp eye out for the visitor they wanted, their keeper bringing food.
When I went again in the evening all five otters swam towards me in an ordered phalanx, their heads raised, their mouths opened in a concerted outcry. I wondered if today was a starvation day, a means of replicating how they would feed in the wild – well some days, not at all on others. The otters obviously thought it was and were vociferously indignant about it.
29 April 2016
The otters were out in a gang of four, waiting for their keeper. She threw frozen sardines into the water, which the otters dived for and retrieved, taking them back for snacking on the rocks. At one point, there was a moving frieze above the waterfall, otter following otter nose to tail until they found the ideal picnic spot.
Each otter took only one or two bites from a fish, but they all held them differently – one gripped a fish in her paws and ate bite by bite down from the head, obviously finding it very chewy.
There was a solitary fifth otter who appeared later on and grabbed her fish before darting into a hole in the bank above the gunnera. She stayed in there on her own and the others kept investigating her space, but retreated rapidly.
The keeper took a straw bale into the enclosure, which was greeted with great excitement, jumped on and pulled apart. Great mouthfuls were taken up to the pipe entrance to one of the holts. The activity got more and more frenetic, with otters passing each other on the path, dragging the straw out and moving it around, even taking it back outside and down to the bale again. The one nesting in the bank, Abbie, was chased by the other four whenever she emerged but darted out from time to time to drag some of the straw into her hole.
Later Abbie came across the top of the rocks, with a shiny sardine in her mouth, heading towards the holt below the tree on the far side of the pool. She met one of the gang, who seemed to be out hunting for her, and was chased into the pool. The other three followed, watching with a lot of vocal encouragement as the first two fought with a great splashing of water. Eventually the aggressor emerged to join the audience, and there was no sign of Abbie. Soon the four were happily rolling on the path and grass above the beach, in the remnants of the straw.
By afternoon the gang was out by the viewpoint, munching the carcasses of young chicks. A couple of these lay on the ground in front of the bank hole, and Abbie crept out of it, tolerated by the nearest two otters as she grabbed a chick and rushed back into cover with it. When their snack was finished the four gathered around the hole and tried to get in, but soon wandered away.
Abbie crept out again later, still tolerated by two of the other otters, and went cautiously further until the main bully saw her and attacked, followed at once by the other three. Abbie ducked into her hole, the bully grabbing at her flanks and biting her tail. I didn’t see her again before I left at 6pm when all was quiet in the otter enclosure, and only a gull swooped down to take an otter’s discarded fish.
It was clear that the dynamics among the otters had changed and that Abbie was not popular. I wasn’t sure if this was a temporary situation, or something more serious.
24 April 2016
This morning the otters were out, fidgeting through the water, climbing onto and diving off of the submerged tree trunks as they waited for the keeper. Abbie’s presence was being tolerated, but she was still wary, lurking behind a shrub as the defrosted chicks were thrown out.
The group dynamics have changed recently, since the return of a young male who played truant for a month, after escaping when a trench was being dug through the enclosure. Abbie is an additional female, the others form a family group of mother, father, daughter and son. Abbie’s own offspring have been rehomed, and the others in the group have turned against her, led by the younger female, Ollie.
When there is this kind of change within a group and the equilibrium upset, it is the eldest female who is generally thrown out, perhaps because it is otter fathers who feed the babies. This appears to be happening here, where Abbie is just accepted by the other three now, but lives on the fringes of the family because Ollie won’t tolerate her. There is some hope that her situation may improve, otherwise she’ll have to be moved away. In the wild, this is what would happen – the victimised female would have to leave the family.
Abbie stayed as much as possible down the hole in the bank, popping out to grab some food, which the keepers managed to throw near her sanctuary. She kept putting her head out, then creeping cautiously into the open, hoping to be unobserved or tolerated, but at this stage Ollie always spotted her and went into attack.
At last Ollie went repeatedly into the hole in the bank, with the others crowding round behind her, but each time Abbie made them back out. So they lurked on the bank and just outside the hole, before retreating across the pond to the central log and the rocks, always with their eyes fixed on Abbie’s bolt hole, waiting for her to come out.
Ollie seemed to be perpetually waiting for Abbie to appear, if not actually trying to get at her. But the other three were not so obsessed, and took time to tear off pieces of gunnera leaves, presumably to add to their bedding as they took them into the holt. But they were also scent marking en masse more frequently, especially on the rocks at the top of the waterfall – perhaps to warn off Abbie.
25-26 April 2016
Abbie was desperate to come out from her hole and eat, so she kept cautiously emerging more and more – she knows the feeding times as well as the others. The Four kept looking for her, and if they’d spotted her they’d have harried her back into cover.
Mice were on the menu this morning, and the keeper managed to throw two onto the track above her hole. She shot out to get them and was back in her hole in a flash.
After feeding, three of the gang pottered separately past the hole, aware of Abbie as she stood warily half out of it, and went on to the holt above. Ollie stayed on patrol, and was down by the beach when Abbie crept out and around the back of the hole. Almost as though Olly was aware of Abbie’s departure, she went to sniff at the hole, found Abbie wasn’t there and went in to check. When she came out she began to hunt Abbie down in earnest. She swam around the pool, diving, then scanning the banks. When she came out on the far side she picked up Abbie’s scent and went after her.
Abbie was searching for food scraps, and was only aware of Ollie at the last second. Abbie dodged past her and raced around the holt on the far side and shot down the bank.
Ollie was right behind her, bigger and heavier. Abbie put on a desperate burst of speed and plunged into the water with only a head’s space between her and Ollie. There was a frantic underwater swim marked by bubbles rising to the surface. Abbie flashed out and into her hole, Ollie was virtually on her tail. There was no time for Abbie to turn, and there was a minute of desperate grunting before Ollie emerged from the hole, wiping her head and belly on the ground before going into the holt with the others.
Later, I feared Abbie was dead. The Four seemed very relaxed, going down her hole, taking straw, yucca and gunnera leaves in there as bedding as well as into the holt above. They were moving around individually, not as a group. One rolled over and over in the water, another was busy prizing something out of the rocks at the line where the waterfall meets the pool.
27 April 2016
Abbie is okay, tucked into a hole by the waterfall. She came out quickly early this morning, when she had some biscuit, and the keeper managed to chuck her a couple of chicks later on. Abbie had to pick her moment to snatch them as they fell on the ledge below her hole.
It may be the others don’t yet realise she’s still around, but she is being removed as soon as possible, and sent to another otter sanctuary.
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