Playing Well with Otters
How do you handle a duck-eating otter? In East Texas, Kelley Snowden comes to terms with conflicts – both internal and neighborly – on how to deal with wild predators that don't respect property lines.
I looked out the window and saw my neighbor from across the street parked in the road. He was leaning over the hood of his pick-up truck with a rifle. His wife sat in the cab. His grandson stood by their pond, a shovel in his hand.
Another gun shot. The shovel came down, and the otter ran. My neighbor turned, aimed and fired again. The otter jumped, sprinted across the road, and dove into the reedy pond next door.
The first time I saw the otter I was stranded at home during an ice storm. The horses were excited and staring into the pasture next door. I looked over and watched an otter lope casually across the ice to the pond. It made sense – my old duck had vanished without a trace a few days before. We knew something had taken her but couldn’t figure out what. Her enclosure was inside a dog yard for security – nothing had dared enter her enclosure. Nothing until now. When we put two-and-two together and figured the most likely culprit was the otter, I railed against the beast. His presence meant I shouldn’t bother with more poultry – something I had been thinking about. No point in it, they would just get eaten.
But unlike my neighbors, did I want to kill him? No. I’ve seen otters in zoos, and pictures on the internet, but I’ve never seen one in the wild. Otters are often portrayed as playful, cute, and cuddly. While they might be all of those, they are first and foremost apex predators. To have one in my neighborhood, to me, is a great privilege and signals that the local ecology is healthy. While his presence put a crimp in my plans for poultry, I couldn’t damn him for his opportunistic tendencies – he was just doing what predators do.
I don’t know why my neighbors were trying to kill him. Maybe they had stocked their pond and noticed the otter feasting. Maybe they wanted the pelt. In Texas you need a “license or permit” to take otter. I’m pretty sure they had neither, and as I watched them fire on the beast my first impulse was to call the game warden. I didn’t, though, I have to live here and I didn’t want to start a feud. With a guilty conscience I had to let the carnage unfold. Luckily the otter got away, this time.
Living in a rural area means living close to wildness, close to predators. The list may include coyotes, wolves, cougar, raptors, otters, or all of the above. You have to keep an eye on your livestock (and your pets) and you have to keep an eye on the skies. You have to think about the food chain around you. There are environmental consequences if you take out the apex predators, but how do you find a balance? Farmers and ranchers across this nation have been dealing with this question for decades as predators have been almost wiped out and then reintroduced in some regions of the country. One way to find a balance is to pursue predator and wildlife “friendly” certification. Through this certification you learn how to co-exist with the local predators and develop non-lethal (primarily preventative) ways of dealing with them. Like organic certification it requires some work, but adding that label to your goods means you can charge a little more, and it looks good to environmentally conscious consumers.
But neither I nor my neighbor makes a living off our land. In fact, most people around here aren’t serious farmers or ranchers. Sure they may have a big garden or raise some poultry or cattle, but it’s largely for personal use, and maybe some small amount of supplementary income. The otter is more of a glorious inconvenience than a true threat. Yes, he ate my duck, and I’m really upset about that, but the duck didn’t represent my income. Am I willing to trade my precious and well-loved duck for a peek into the wildness the otter has shown me? I hate to admit it, but yes. Are my neighbors willing to do the same? Apparently not. Do I want to lose more animals to this otter? No.
So, how do I find a balance with the otter and my neighbors? I can prepare for the otter. I can reinforce fencing and enclosures. I can lace everything with electric wire so he gets a nasty shock on his nose when he tries to scoot under my fences. If I do get more poultry I can put padlocks on their coop at night so maybe the buggar can’t pick the locks. While I can try to find a balance with the otter, I don’t know about my neighbor. Somehow I don’t think I will ever be able to convince him to put down his rifle. I suspect that come summer the otter will move on when the ponds dry up and the problem will be solved. Until then I’ll make my plans, and my neighbor will make his, and hopefully no one will get caught in the crossfire, particularly the otter.
Kelley Snowden, is an adjunct professor who teaches geography at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. She is also a research associate with the Center for Regional Heritage Research at SFASU.