Although 12 out of 13 species of otter are in decline, our cheeky, furry friends can now be found in every county in England.
Their return is partly due to protection and habitat regeneration programmes run by specialists at our centres up and down the country.
One such expert is John Crooks, captive animal manager at WWT Slimbridge in Gloucestershire. He took time out of his busy day to tell us why his unusual job is so otterly fascinating.
I had a very Enid Blyton upbringing. I was brought up on a farm, tadpoles in the bath, lots of stray animals. ‘Can I keep it?’ ‘No, take it back!’
I have always had otters under my skin, according to my mother. Supposedly on my first trip to London I was a screaming brat in Harrods toy shop refusing to leave until he got his toy otter. It’s still on my shelf so it’s stayed with me.
They are very charismatic animals which helps, but working with them and using them as an ambassador and a step on to nature and conservation, it’s one of those things. The little kids have probably heard of otters but most people haven’t seen them at all and very few people have seen them in the wild.
They might look cute and cuddly but they are carnivores and they will eat the cute little ducklings if we gave them a chance. In the words of the Lion King, it’s the circle of life. It’s about the truth, the life cycles, even at a small age kids will start to understand it.
The support you get from volunteers, the work experience kids in, right the way through to the legacies and the People’s Post Code Lottery fund enables us to do more work both in Britain and abroad. But it also helps us show people how amazing wetlands are and also how little changes can make a big difference.
It’s great to have the huge cheques but someone buying a cup of tea in one our cafes is just as helpful in a small way. It all matters and it gives people a connection to nature and the planet.
I start my day by checking all the animals and of course the otters, walk through, check everybody is OK, check there’s no illness, no injury, no problems. Check everyone is still with us. Usually the otters will have a little bit of breakfast first thing and a little bit of supper last thing. I usually start and end my day with the otters.
My favourite part of the day is just before coffee time. Every animal is checked and fed but you might have five or ten minutes spare that you can just go watch the animals. You get a lot of people saying ‘oh I wish I had your job’ but they only see ten minutes, quarter of an hour you’re doing your talk. They’re not seeing the scrubbing, the slicing and dicing of fish and washing bowls. Washing food bowls is a large part of my day but there is a point when everything is done and it’s not quite coffee time and you can just sit and look at the animals. That’s why we often rely on the visitors if they do see anything to go and tell someone, because they’re probably watching the animals more often than we are.
I compare it to looking after your pets. If you know they’re normal behaviour and they do something a bit weird, it might be a clue that they’ve got a bad tooth or they’ve hurt their foot or whatever so it goes onto animal husbandry as well, to keep an eye on them.
The most important thing I’ve learned from doing this job is that people do care – from the little kids to the more mature visitors. You can say that the otters have recovered because man’s actions have changed to be more in their favour, and now otters are coming back in Britain. Now every English country has otters and Scotland, Ireland and Wales are way ahead of us. Even globally if we look at Singapore, there are families of smooth coated otters in the middle of one of the most built up areas on the planet. They’ve moved in because the water was cleaned and given a bit of space. Now there are family groups of otters and they are being seen by the tourists and everyone is getting excited about it.
I’ve seen a few things in my lifetime but in this job the strangest thing I’ve ever witnessed is the vet blood testing our beaver. He’s basically 25kg of annoyed hamster. So I looked into it, and the trick is you get a traffic cone and stick the beaver’s head in it and tip up the cone so his weight sort of forces him down and the vet can get to a very nice blood line on his tail. I shoved my beaver’s head in a traffic cone. Don’t try to pick him up while he’s in as while you’re lifting, his head and teeth are at your shin level… He wasn’t impressed.
The most rewarding part of my job is the interested kids. That’s the thing that I tell all the people that I work with when they start here: ‘do not make things up’ – because there are little kids, CBeebies, Steve Backshall, they’ve watched it, they’ve probably remembered a lot more than you have and there could be the professor of biology from Oxford sitting in the audience. Even the toddlers and infants have seen something on telly or have picked up a feather and spotted things. Mighty oaks from little acorns grow. Sir David Attenborough’s first pet was a French fire salamander. That’s what he started with. If you can fire their interest, their imagination, get them started, hopefully everything will be in good hands. That initial spark, particularly with the talks, being given the time to talk to people, it gives you hope for the future.
I prefer to call them talks, because talks are more formal than a feed. If we did a presentation then that becomes more formal. If we do a talk, I might be feeding them but I’m also talking about them. Where is a feed is more, my hands come out, they have food, then they’re off. Just from how I gauge it, we have microphones on and it gives it that tone of formality but they can still ask questions and get involved.
If you’ve just been digging a new hole and you’re a bit dirty, the public will understand because they’ve just seen you dig that hole. You’ve stopped that to come and talk to them. They’re on your side. People do it in different ways. I know in the US it’s more about the presenter, but it doesn’t quite work as much with British audiences. The days of the experts being in the shadows are over.
There is a lot of washing up involved. A lot of bowls are used and you need to have them clean for the next session. It’s not all glamour. When it’s a nice summer’s day, and people say how much they would love my job, they’re not seeing me in the middle of February in a thunder storm. Most of the time, thankfully I’m doing what I love doing. It’s all part of the process.
Apart from looking after the animals here, the most important part of my job is presenting them well in the exhibit or during the talks when you’re telling people about them. Although the Trust is 70 years established with the birds, they know just by looking after the wetlands that that gives habitat to the otters which broadens the horizons of the Trust. Right from the start Sir Peter Scott knew that it wasn’t just one bird, one species, one individual, it was the ecosystem and also that you then had to get people interested in it and for it. You can save as many animal species as you like, but if no one cares about that habitat then it’s not going to go anywhere. It has to be sustainable.
It’s no good telling the locals that a species are special. You have to show them that they’re special. From an otter point of view, the ones in Singapore, certain giant otters down in South America, it’s showing that they’re good for ecotourism. Give them a value to a person, then they look after it and it carries on. You might have one person obsessed with saving a species but once they’ve gone, that’s gone as well. You have to get everyone involved.
In Britain, otters are coming back, but the same species in other parts of the world are in decline so they’re not out of the woods yet. In Britain there is still a worry of chemical imbalance from drugs that we flush down the toilet, the little plastic pellets in exfoliants seem to be in otters’ bodies. We don’t know what problems might occur. It boils down to little things. Sea otters in America all started coming down with a cat virus and they couldn’t work out how the wild otters had caught it from domestic cats and it was traced back to people flushing their kitty litter down the toilet so it’s a little action like that, that has a massive effect.
Our otters love tobogganing. They’ll play in the snow – they will actually just sledge – body slam it. One of the first winters they were down here, the pond froze, it snowed, and from their tracks it showed how active they were at night because their whole pen seemed to be trashed. They had been running up one side and sliding down the other, running across the ice and doing big circuits. They also like climbing.
Sea otters are one of the few animals that do kidnapping and ransom. The males will watch the females with cubs and when she leaves the cub to get some shellfish or seafood from the sea floor, the male will steal the cub and not give it back until she’s paid him in food. Otters will also use rocks as a hammer or anvil, they also invariably swim around with them under their armpit to help them dive underwater. Marvellous things.
One of our work experience left a rubber glove for a second in the otter pen and Ha Ha (a Slimbridge otter) decided that would be a nice thing to steal, stole it and took it under the boardwalk. I was worried they would chew it up and swallow it so I got my waders on, went under the boardwalk with the otters. They left me until I got 2ft away from the glove and then Ha Ha knew exactly what I was after and shot in, grabbed the glove, and I was basically left playing cat and mouse with a marigold glove and an otter who was enjoying it far more than I. They are wonderfully intelligent but sometimes annoying with it.
Support of Players of People’s Postcode Lottery helps John and his colleagues to carry out invaluable work and ensure that our visitors have fun learning about conservation at our centres and overseas. Players of People’s Postcode Lottery have now raised an amazing £221.2 million for charities and good causes.