Here’s a headline you don’t see every day:
“Otter attacks, injures boy and grandmother”
I mean, most people’s concept of an otter is likely to be an image of a sleek, graceful mammal cruising effortlessly around a pool at some marine park, or floating on its back cracking open a clam to enjoy as a watery snack. Vicious attacks just don’t seem to be in their nature, which makes the incident that happened last week at a park about 30 miles north of Seattle all the more shocking.
What’s next? A straight-to-cable movie “When Good Otters Go Bad?” Or maybe “Otternado 2: Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the river . . . ”
Turns out, as is true of many wild animals, the Disney-eque imagery of a fun-loving otter doesn’t quite capture the creature’s actual “lifestyle.” Otters, in fact, are like weasels on steroids: skillful predators, they can weigh up to 25 or even 30 pounds and are equipped with sharp claws and powerful jaws, as the unfortunate young boy and his grandmother discovered the hard way.
According to news reports, the pair were swimming in the Pilchuck River near a private campground in the morning when the otter suddenly attacked, Capt. Alan Myers of the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, told reporters. When the grandmother attempted to fend it off, the animal attacked her, as well.
Based on initial reports, the boy needed stitches and his grandmother suffered a severe eye injury, Myers said.
The otter has not yet been caught, and a trapper was unable to locate its den in the area where the attack happened. If it is caught, the otter may be “euthanized or relocated,” Myers said. Officials are waiting to determine whether a rabies test is needed.
Quick to pass judgment
What’s interesting about this incident—along with imagining the sci-fi imagery of giant rabid otters exposed to radioactive waste buried at the bottom of a river—is the way the story serves as a litmus test for so many people.
I took my own personal survey of about a dozen people, and every single one immediately professed a yay-or-nay opinion on the disposition of the otter in question. Either they decried the thought of killing an innocent animal that was probably just defending its territory—and river otters, turns out, travel across large stretches of rivers and estuaries hunting for food—or they declared themselves ready to flip the switch and fry the poor critter personally.
Even wildlife officials were quick to pronounce judgment.
“When an animal has attacked a human, it becomes hard to justify setting it free again,” Capt. Myers stated.
The highly opinionated response almost everyone seemed to have is indicative of our collective inability to see nuance, to consider variables, to—heaven forbid—understand that gray is the color of most controversies.
We see our values (and prejudices) in black and white, and other than religion and politics, this dogmatism seems to surface most frequently with issues related to animals.
Whether wild or domesticated (or somewhere in between, like the feral cats roaming around the neighborhood where I live), animals trigger something primal in us, it seems. It’s either fear and loathing or willful dominance. The reality in this unfortunate otter attack is that there are no easy answers, no satisfying solutions that make everybody happy.
But I wasn’t asking people where they stood on Roe v. Wade, or who’s to blame for the violence between Israel and Hamas. Just what should be done about a normally playful animal that reacted to a threat from someone “invading” its territory.
What’s sad about my unscientific survey isn’t just the inability of otherwise intelligent people to accept some cognitive dissonance, it’s the fact that a black-and-white, good-or-evil, enlightened-or-demented approach infects the public discourse on all issues of animal well-being, wildlife management and livestock production.
Truth is, there aren’t any simple solutions to the problems caused by the encroachment of humans into formerly undeveloped forests and marine environments. You can’t be totally on the side of the animals—we’re way past that point—but it’s equally shortsighted to pretend that development always takes precedence, and if we have to destroy farmland, pastures or wildlife habitat in the process, so be it.
It’s too bad this particular otter didn’t have a cute name, like Dashur or Allegra or Cliquot, because then the cuteness factor might trump the part about gouging a grandmother’s eye out.
Unfortunately for this otter, it will eventually be trapped and killed.
And equally depressing for those of us committed to best practices and sustainable technologies, the “debates” over what’s appropriate and what’s not in how to breed, feed and manage food animals will continue along the same partisan battle lines as ever.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.