Those Naughty Sea Otters

Sea Otter image 1Sea Otter image 2

I'm not overly fond of sea otters.

There, I said it and I'm glad. In fact, I am more than glad. Suddenly, I have the lightness of spirit normally reserved for winning Olympic athletes, pilgrims in sight of the Promised Land and the criminally insane. Yes, yes, I know otters are cute, with their little squashed-in faces, hand-like paws and black button noses. And yes, I have seen all of those adorable little mannerisms: the paw-waving, the superciliosus smiles, the grooming; all of which inevitably evoke ooshy-gooshy responses in easily-swayed humans. And I also realize they are a growth industry in central California; tourists here gobble up sea otter curios like so much jalapeno-flavored popcorn. Every bar in Monterey offers "Sea Otter Margaritas", every trinket shop sells battery-operated plastic sea otter dolls that smash plastic rocks against plastic abalones and every department store pushes "Mother and Baby Sea Otter" garlic shredders made out of genuine redwood burl.

Despite this outpouring of emotion, I still think otters are overrated. Now, I don't want a flood of anguished letters calling me bad names and casting aspersions upon my character. For one thing there's not that much to cast aspersions upon. So, save yourself some time. Don't hobble over to your writing desk, pull out that hideous monogrammed stationary, put quill to paper and pen some quasi-coherent complaint. I'm not suggesting we turn otters into hats. I just think the hoopla is overblown.

And why don't I slobber all over these furry little creatures, these cuddly little denizens that look like they come straight out of some aquatic Lord of the Rings? Well, my friends, it comes down to a simple thing called Values. That's right, it all comes down to Values and, more particularly, to the obvious lack of values displayed by sea otters. Let's just look at a few of the more egregious examples.

No Self Control

Hey, what can I say? This is supposed to be the Age of Self Control. From governments to individuals, the cry rings out "Live within your means. Show some restraint". But do sea otters exhibit such responsibility? I think not.

Needing to eat about 25% of their body weight per day, sea otters, perhaps better labelled "Sea Shrews" or "Sea Rats", spend much of their time just getting enough to eat. An average adult otter needs at least 2 tons of food per year to survive. Otters are extremely efficient predators, feeding on a wide range of invertebrates, particularly abalone, sea urchins, crabs, mussels and clams. It is very likely that once otters make it big in southern California the lobster population will also take a header. When times get tough, they start in on the relatively poor food resources, such as sand dollars and starfish. Where otters live, most large invertebrates are small and uncommon.

So what happens when otters have eaten most of the available prey in an area, as occurs in Alaskan waters? Well, some animals leave the area and some starve to death. So much for self control. Next thing you know, otters will be trying to get on the public dole.

No Family Values

Here in the United-States-of-the-late-Twentieth-Century, what could be more topical, more important than family values? I wish I had a nickel every time a political candidate, media pundit or convicted-felon radio personality intones some little homily about Family Values.

Well, when it comes to sea otters, just forget it. What kind of values are displayed when males hold pups for ransom until the mothers give them food? That's right, male otters will often grab pups away from their mothers and only give them up when mom comes up with some seafood. And what can you say about a species whose males steal food from all other otters, females steal food away from other females and pups rip off their mothers?

Is there just no end to their perfidy?

Lots of Kinky Sex

I have saved this for last because, quite frankly, it contains material that is not for the faint of heart. If you are underage, underweight, under a doctor's care, under glass or if tales of strange sex acts disturb you, please close your eyes until I tell you to open them. On the other hand, if you are like most Americans, please remember to blink at least occasionally while reading this.

At the outset, let's make it clear that even regular mating between otters is just plain revolting. During mating, a male will often bite a female's nose and hold on for dear life. Even more disgusting, sometimes females die from the experience. But we have yet to reach the ne plus ultra level of disgustingness. You would think that the demise of your love interest might put the kibosh on mating, but male otters are so single-minded, their minds so like testosterone-drenched jelly donuts, that they sometimes continue mating with a dead female.

So, now where are those ooshy-gooshy feelings?

But it is the truly bizarre that tells the tale. I hesitate to mention this next story, but I am a biologist and thus legally obligated to bring you Truth. So, here goes. According to a paper by B. B. Hatfield et al. (Marine Mammal Science, 1994, vol. 10, pp. 114-116), off the coast of southern California, there are male sea otters that have attempted to have sex with, well, with harbor seals. I know, I know, this is illegal in every state in the Union except, perhaps, Mississippi, but are we really surprised to hear that "Sea Rats" are capable of this?

As an example, between 1989 and 1992, an otter named BB, tried to mate with 6 newly-weaned harbor seals at San Nicolas Island. The otter would pounce on each animal, seize it with his mouth and forepaws, then try to have its way. Nothing much seemed to happen and after a while "interactions with harbor seals were usually interrupted when BB released the seals to groom, although seals did occasionally struggle free." So, not only did BB abduct defenseless little harbor seals, not only did he try to make free with them, he would also soon throw them over in favor of combing his hair. There are so many examples of poor role modelling here that I am at a loss to know where to begin.

Okay, you can open your eyes again, the worst is over.

Well, I hope this brief excursion into the Dark Side of old "Cute 'n Cuddly" has made the point. But, just to be sure, here is a little ditty to bring it all home.

You Otter Be Careful

A sea otter to me once jeered,
"We're just the species you feared.
We're cute, but rapacious,
Completely voracious,
And practice sex acts that are weird."

Milton Love

Entertaining, yet mildly thought provoking things,
for persons with short attention spans.

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