Note: I wrote this piece yesterday but didn’t have a chance to post it. At the end is an update.
This morning I was walking in the back garden with my dog when he suddenly got excited. Instinctively I tightened his leash and from a bed of reeds there burst a long, sinuous dark shape with a rounded, muscular, tapering tail. “Otter!” I thought to myself incredulously. The apparition vanished into the bushes at the front of the house.
I went indoors, calmed the dog and stepped carefully out again. The otter was curled up against the side of the house, in a bed of crepe myrtle. It appeared to be asleep.
My daughter took a photo. I went indoors and got a bowl full of water (it was getting to be a rather hot, dry day) and set it cautiously at the base of the fir tree not far from the otter. The otter looked suspiciously at me and sort of flowed slowly into the shelter of the bushes.
I spent all morning trying to find a human to speak with at various places, from Mass. Audubon to the Aquarium, to the Fish and Wildlife folks, only to be confronted with tedious automated recordings that were totally useless. After some hours I managed to contact the Animal rescue League, who informed me that they don’t rescue animals unless they are injured or ill. I also talked with a marine biologist who suggested I let the creature be, since it would probably find its way home in the night. Meanwhile my husband had determined that northern river otters are nocturnal, so there was likely no harm in letting the otter sleep it off in the front yard.
Otters are not a common sight in my area. I live in a very large town, and although there used to be a forest with some wetlands and ponds behind my house, the forest is gone now. The wetlands are supposedly protected but where the forest used to be, right up against the wetlands, is a massive construction project. The neighborhood tried to save the forest but to no avail. Since then the coyotes and deer we used to see have gone, and so have the fishers. I heard there used to be beavers back there but I never heard there were otters. I suppose that is where our guest came from — whether this otter left because its habitat was (illegally) disturbed by the construction people or because it wandered off on its own accord and ended up further than it intended, there is no way of knowing.
So we canceled our plans for the day. I walked to the grocery store, a pleasant walk in this weather because you go through the neighbourhood and a small, wooded area. I bought some tilapia for the otter just in case. The rest of the day I stayed home, roaming from one window to another, trying to catch a glimpse of the otter. I set out another bowl of water at the side of the house where there are more bushes, and also distributed some chunks of the tilapia. Just in case it was hungry. But all it’s done so far is sleep. At one point it rolled out from under the bush (presumably in its sleep) and lay on its back with its eyes closed, stretching its paws in slumber the way my dog sometimes does. I could see that the front paws were webbed, which was very cool. It breathed easily, turning in its sleep, like a child. Some hours later it sat up and looked around, and then went into the deepest, greenest bush, where it is sleeping as I type this. The water and fish remain untouched.
So while it sleeps, I ponder. I hope it will find its way home when dark falls. I wonder what brought it here, to our garden. Our yard is a small wildlife haven, with its birdfeeders and nut treats and birdbath, and its lack of pesticides (we have a lot of wild plants, you know, what other people call weeds). My husband put the bird feeders up last fall, and since then we have had a number of visitors, including a plump bunny that seems to have taken up residence and runs only half-heartedly when the dog (leashed) tries to chase it. A few mornings ago my husband saw a deer (now a rare sight here) munching seeds that pile up under the birdfeeder. But one of the most rewarding things about the bird feeders is that we’ve had birdsong all winter long. Imagine walking on this street in the dead of winter, with the bare trees stark against a gray sky, and the snow thick on the ground. All the houses are shrouded in quiet. Then, as you come close to our house and pass it by, you hear an absolute cacophony of birdsong. Quite uplifting, in that season, to hear an intimation of spring.
But an otter? That’s something special.
Some days ago I re-read Ursula K. Le Guin’s book of short stories, Tales from Earthsea, where the first story is about a man who can turn into an otter. When this man, Medra, or Otter, as he is commonly known, is escaping from his enemies, he is given shelter at a village called Woodedge. Later Woodedge comes to be known as Otterhide.
If all ends well tomorrow, maybe I should reaname our house Otterhide. J
Update: Today, April 19, I could find no sign of the otter. One of the three pieces of raw fish I left out was gone, although there’s no telling who ate it. I assume our guest found the way home. Much as I’m worried about how the construction behind us might be disturbing the wildlife, I’m also glad we could provide a place for the otter to take a nap.