Wednesday, September 8th, 2004

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PAWS Mailing Address:
PO Box 1037
Lynnwood WA, 98046

PAWS Physical Address:
15305 44th Ave W
Lynnwood, WA 98037

Kevin Mack
Stronger Than a Locomotive
by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist

At 4 pm on August 30th, I was standing in the lobby of the PAWS Wildlife Center looking at a security monitor. A black-and-white image on the monitor showed a large cage with a water-filled pool set into the floor at the far end. While I watched, ripples appeared in the water and an adult River Otter broke the surface. As he climbed out to sit on the pool's edge, I could see something silver dangling from his mouth-a wriggling, live herring. The otter tossed his head back to reposition the fish before quickly devouring it. He then reentered the water to pursue the remaining 23 herring that had been offered to him. Seeing the otter catch fish was an amazing sight, especially considering that the first time I saw him he was on the verge of death. His two-month recovery had been remarkable, and he showed no lingering effects of the nearly fatal injuries that had brought him to PAWS. Now, the otter had less than fourteen hours before the last essential piece of his life would be returned to him. As I watched him capture the fish one by one, I wished I could tell him that this was the last meal he would be eating in a cage.

On June 26th, 2004, a railroad maintenance worker discovered what appeared to be a dead river otter lying on the train tracks in Edmonds. Upon closer inspection, it was apparent that the otter was still breathing.

River Otter

Suffering from a fractured skull and neck vertebra, otter 04-2345 was comatose for several days.

Although it was only about 9 am, the day was already uncomfortably warm, and the otter was lying in direct sunlight. Fearing that the animal would overheat, the railroad worker parked his maintenance vehicle over the otter to shade him from the sun. He then contacted Edmonds Animal Control, and the responding officer retrieved the otter and brought him to the PAWS Wildlife Center. Upon admission, he was entered into the PAWS database as case #04-2345.

Otter 04-2345 was comatose when he arrived at PAWS. He was bleeding from his nose and mouth, and his breathing was labored. A large area of swelling was evident on the back of his head and neck. PAWS Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. John Huckabee placed an IV catheter in the otter's leg,

River Otter

After several weeks of care, otter 04-2345 returned to full function.

and administered fluids and medications to help stabilize his condition. X-rays that were taken to determine the cause of the head and neck swelling revealed that the otter had suffered a fractured skull and a fractured neck vertebra. Something had hit the otter very hard from behind and, considering where he had been found, that "something" had apparently been a train.

For the six days following his admission to PAWS, otter 04-2345 remained unconscious. He suffered several seizures, but these eventually ceased. He began to exhibit involuntary "swimming" motions with his legs when handled, and he also began to swallow fish that were placed in his mouth; thus allowing PAWS staff a way to deliver food. By July 2nd the otter began to struggle and bite during handling, and on July 5th he showed signs of awareness and coordination. He regained his feet, but he walked in circles, bumping into the walls of the small enclosure in which he was being housed. He was placed in a small pool daily to give him some exercise, and to keep his fur in good condition. He continued to improve, and he graduated to a larger, outdoor cage on July 14th.

River Otter

Otter 04-2345 enjoys a meal.

Once otter 04-2345 was placed in his new cage, it became apparent that he was not responding appropriately to visual stimuli. When the door would open and a staff member would enter his cage, he would not look in their direction. He also had difficulty avoiding objects in his path when walking. Veterinary Ophthalmologist Dr. Tom Sullivan was kind enough to donate his services to assess the otter's vision. Dr. Sullivan found that the otter's eyes were injury free, so his apparent blindness was likely due to a brain injury. He recommended that the otter be given more time to heal, and that his vision be reassessed in two to three weeks. All we could do was wait.

On July 29th the otter began to show signs that his vision was returning. He responded to staff members entering his cage by becoming visibly agitated and hiding behind objects. The improvement continued over the course of the following week until he was responding to the movements of staff that he could see outside the door of his enclosure. On August 8th, the otter was given a real test when live herring were placed in his pool for the first time. He immediately went after the herring, and within minutes had plucked every last one from the water. A few weeks later, having benefited as much as he possibly could from PAWS' care, he was ready to leave.

As I attempted to herd the otter into a transport carrier on August 31st, the extent of his recovery was painfully obvious to me. It was 5:45am, and still dark, but the otter's vision was far superior to mine even though I had the benefit of a headlamp.

River Otter

Otter 04-2345 waited 2 long months for this moment.

He eventually ran into the transport carrier, but I'm not sure if he did so because of my skill at herding him, or because he was afraid that if he didn't I might trip over him. Whatever his reason, I closed the door behind him and we were off to Edmonds.

Otters along the Edmonds waterfront move back and forth between the salt water of Puget Sound, and the brackish water of the Edmonds Marsh. A road and train tracks run in between the sound and marsh, making travel between the two areas hazardous for wildlife. Otter 04-2345 was likely in transit from one of these locations to the other when the train struck him. I chose to release the otter into the sound as it would afford him with a much larger area to disperse safely by water. I also chose to release him just after dawn, at high tide, and between ferry runs to ensure that there would be very little human activity in the area. At 6:45am the stage was set. The transport carrier was sitting on the beach with the door facing the water. The small group of well-wishers that were attending the release were standing about 20 feet away on a walk-way above a bulkhead. I assumed that when I opened the door, the otter would see the people on the bulkhead, run for the water, and swim away in the opposite direction. I apparently do not think like an otter.

Once the transport carrier door was open, otter 04-2345 poked his head out to assess the situation. He looked longingly at the water, and then he turned his head to the left and noticed the spectators looking at him. He preferred not to be looked at. He ran to the base of the bulkhead to immediately get out of the humans' line of sight. Since it was high tide, waves were lapping up against the west-facing edge of the bulkhead, and the otter made his way through these waves still hugging the base of the structure. He then disappeared into a small storm culvert.

River Otter

The coast is finally clear, and otter 042345 departs.

The people above peered over the edge of the bulkhead to see a concerned otter face poking out of the culvert and looking back at them. The otter swam out into the water a few times, but whenever he made a move, his well-wishers became understandably excited, and he retreated back into the culvert. Realizing that the otter was not going to go about his business until he felt safe doing so, I requested that everyone leave so that he would no longer feel threatened. I stayed behind with a member of the Edmonds Parks Department to ensure that the otter left safely.

After a minute or two, the otter reentered the water and swam out about 50 yards from shore. He was diving and resurfacing, and it looked like the reality of his freedom was finally sinking in. There was a temporary setback when an excited crowd from the nearby senior center spotted him and rushed over, causing him to again seek the safety of the culvert. I told the otter's story to the excited onlookers and they respectfully kept their distance. The otter again exited the culvert and began to dive and resurface, moving away from shore. He turned north, and now he appeared to be moving with a purpose. I saw him dive one last time and then he was gone from my sight. I wished him well, hoping that he would forget all of the pain and confusion of the previous two months. But I hoped he would never forget the lesson that he learned on the train tracks, and that he would always be wary of the danger they pose.

Take An Active Role In the Well-being Of Wildlife: Support Team "Wild Things"
This year's PAWSwalk, PAWS' largest fundraiser of the year, will be Saturday, October 2nd, 2004 at Sand Point Magnuson Park in Seattle.

PAWSwalk benefits all of the animals that PAWS cares for through sponsorships, registrations and pledges. If you would like to join PAWS Naturalist Kevin Mack on team "Wild Things", or make a pledge to support the team click here.

Wildlife Release tally: August 18th to August 31st, 2004

2 Band-tailed Pigeons
1 Wood Duck
4 Steller's Jays
2 Cooper's Hawks
5 Raccoons
1 Barn Swallow
10 Eastern Cottontails
1 Ring-necked Pheasant
13 Glaucous-winged Gulls
6 Mallards
1 Common Murre
1 Mink
1 Western Screech Owl
1 Wilson's Warbler
8 American Robins
2 Douglas Squirrels
1 River Otter
2 Vaux's Swifts
1 Virginia Opossum

Wildlife Release tally: 2004
728 animals

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