October 26, 2017

Swimming With Otters

Photo by hamikus via Pixabay (Public Domain, CC0 1.0)

I'm not much for jumping on bandwagons. I'd rather be the first to do something that becomes popular later or be the only one to go somewhere few would choose to go.

I just don't like following trends. And when something gets too popular, too publicized, too pedestrian, I usually recoil.

But there are exceptions to everything, aren't there?

Case in point: goat yoga.

But that fits perfectly in the narrative of the Life of Sandi. I find animals therapeutic. I seek out goats as well as parrots and llamas and alpacas and foxes and cows and sheep and pretty much all manner of fauna.

I'm pretty much always looking to make a meaningful connection with some member of the Animal Kingdom. Sometimes—perhaps by chance—some beast or critter grants me my wish.

So, it wasn't the fact that Nurtured By Nature's "Swimming With Otters" program had become an instant internet hit that brought me on a last minute excursion to North San Diego County this week.

In fact, I'd first heard about it maybe in late 2015—when spots were still available, but I couldn't afford the price.

In early 2016, I'd started working again and had a little money and a little availability, so I tried to book—but at the time, spots were filling up months in advance.

The next time I tried later that year, the rest of the year was completely booked up—as was the entire year of 2017.

No dates for 2018 had been announced yet.

I'd missed my window of opportunity. But despite the fervor that had grown around this otter encounter, I still wanted to go.

I thought it might ease my PTSD. I thought I'd benefit from the oxytocin. And I thought I'd have a lot of fun.

And now that I've managed to swim with the otters, I realize that I'd been right—on all three counts.

So, if all of 2017 had been completely sold out since last year, how did I get in? It's simple: persistence and patience.

For months, I checked Nurtured By Nature's website, email newsletter, and Facebook page diligently, waiting to pounce on any cancellation or any added time slot. At the very least, I thought I'd try to get a leg up on ticket sales for next year's dates, whenever they were announced. (As of right now, they're still not.)

And then by some miracle, the announcement was posted: Three spots had opened up. The only problem? I didn't see the post until hours later.

By the time I got to it, there was one spot that still remained open. I didn't have time to doubt myself. I didn't dare check the balance on my bank account. I just clicked "BOOK," and next thing I knew I was embarking on a three hour drive just before 7 a.m. on Wednesday morning.

Needless to say, the otters—not river ones like in Emmett Otter's Jugband Christmas, and not sea otters like in Morro Bay, but Asian small-clawed otters (Aonyx cinerea)—were worth it.

Earlier in our visit, we'd played with a bunch of babies that squeaked like little chicks or ducklings as they wrestled with each other and ran around us in a pack, climbing up our bodies to investigate our hair and look down our shirts and gnawing on shoelaces and sandals and toes.

In the afternoon, we stripped down to our suits and plunged into a warm, backyard pool that overlooks the stunning Pauma Valley, with a small group of adult Asian small-clawed otters to follow.

Nothing is sacred with these little cutie pies. They go down shirts, out armholes, between legs, and up shorts. They have a ball with the simplest of pool toys—and especially the multi-colored aquarium stones that are like gold to those otters. Put one down your shirt, and they'll dig it out. Let them grab one out of a plastic cup or bottle, and they'll deposit down your top or your bottom.

They are feisty and playful, perfectly happy to chomp down on a rope and have you twirl them in circles forever (or until you fall down in a fit of dizziness, whichever comes first).

We were probably ready to get out of the water before they were—but only because our cameras were wet, our fingers were pruney, and our bodies were exhausted from play.

I woke up the next morning feeling hungover from all the giggling I did. And you know what they say about laughter being the best medicine—something that appears to be true, no matter what ails ya.

It's no wonder this is a favorite for terminally-ill kids sponsored by the Make-a-Wish Foundation. It's too bad it can't be made more widely available for more of us with disabilities and chronic illnesses.

Imagine if a doctor could prescribe an otter swim to you as he would an emotional support animal, therapy dog, or—more likely—antidepressant or pain pill.

Will "otter swimming" start popping up all over the country—or even the world—soon? It's probably better if it doesn't.

Unlike goats, which are an abundant species of domesticated animals that actually make very good pets, the small-clawed otter is listed as having a "vulnerable" conservation status—which means it's threatened and one step away from becoming endangered—and they're so social and active that they don't make very good pets. (At least with goats, you could stop at having just a pair; but with otters, you'd need an entire lodge of them.)

Thanks to breeding programs at zoos and aquariums, there's a healthy population of small-clawed otters in captivity; but, in the wild, their Southeast Asian habitat is slowly being destroyed by development and they're still subject to hunting and poaching for both their pelts and their meat.

After all, there's a fine line between driving awareness about certain wild animals and creating a fad that ultimately sabotages the survival of the species.

So, I hope that we use this otter gift for good and not for evil.

Let's just enjoy their company and let them enjoy ours—as they seemed to do in the pool with me and a handful of others earlier this week.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: A Manner of Meerkats
Photo Essay: Hiking with Baby Goats
Photo Essay: Yoga With Baby Goats
Photo Essay: Playing With Wolves

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