The newest resident of National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque arrived at about 1:30 a.m. today and almost immediately took a dip in a pool.
The museum received an orphaned North American river otter that is no more than 2 years old.
“We’ve had staff observing him all night, and we haven’t seen any signs of stress,” said Abby Urban, the river museum’s curator of living collections, this morning. “We’ve seen behavior typical of a young river otter – very curious.”
The male otter is being housed in an exhibit space called “the flooded forest,” a glass-fronted land-and-water area that previously provided a home for various waterfowl. Now, the exhibit’s glass walls are temporarily covered as the otter adjusts to his new home.
“We wanted our staff to monitor him in a larger pool of water,” Urban said. “We weren’t expecting issues because he is young and healthy, but in a captive setting, he did not previously have access to this large a body of water. He was somewhat hesitant the first couple of minutes, but then he began diving down 4 or 5 feet and just was exhibiting signs he was pretty happy in there.”
The otter had been found abandoned in central Iowa in June 2018.
“It had been found in an area not near a water source and not with a parent animal, and it was young enough that it needed to be bottle-fed,” Urban said.
An independent animal rehabber in Altoona, Iowa, cared for the otter until its arrival at the river museum. The facility will serve as the animal’s permanent home.
“When we found out about this animal, it was not our No. 1 intention to become the permanent home for it,” Urban said. “We’re always looking at what’s best for the animal. We were originally thinking we could find placement for the animal. However, we had an exhibit here where we were able to move some fish and waterfowl to some other areas in our permanent collection, and then we were fortunate to have some donor support to help make the modifications to make this exhibit appropriate for this North American river otter.”
Andy Allison, the river museum’s vice president of living collections and education, said the arrival of the otter is a good sign for the species in Iowa. Otters had been extirpated – officially absent from the state – for many decades.
“Here at the river museum, one of the things that is important to us is sharing messages of conservation, and river otters were basically gone from Iowa a hundred years ago,” Allison said. “... So, this is a really good success story of reintroduction efforts. Some of our efforts are bringing animals back from the brink of extinction.”
The new otter joins a female river otter, Mama, who has called the museum home since 2004. However, they might not share an exhibit.
“The ultimate goal would be to house this male otter with another otter,” Urban said. “However, we can’t say that the otter we currently have will be the best fit for that animal. That is something our veterinary and animal care team will evaluate over the coming months and determining with behavior and mannerisms what would be a good fit for the animal. We would probably like to bring in another young animal to be housed with him. Females, and older females in particular, have a hard time adjusting to changes and that social dynamic. But right now, we’re fortunate we have two spaces that we can house otters in.”
The current exhibit space for the young otter also provides space for the careful introduction of the animal into the river museum’s collection.
“Any animal coming into our collection goes through a mandatory isolation period or quarantine,” Urban said. “This one is a little unique because we will be able to do some of that quarantine process in view of the public. There will be some opportunity to see this, what would normally be done behind the scenes.”
Donors who helped provide a home for the animal will get the first opportunities to see the otter through a series of VIP events.
Urban said that, after those events, "if we’re not seeing any kinds of stress or behavioral issues, we would be taking those temporary walls down in about a week-and-a-half.”