BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) — Alligators and manatees seem to get all of the attention when it comes to Florida wildlife.
But river otters can be found in every region of the state except for the Keys. And their presence indicates a healthy ecosystem.
Even though the river otter is a Florida native, there’s a good chance you’ve never seen one outside of a zoo. Just be warned: They’re cute, but also get nasty.
“They are not always seen, but they are relatively common in freshwater rivers, creeks, lakes, ponds and swamps around the state,” Lisa Thompson, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesperson, said in an email. “They use burrows dug along water banks,” Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission Spokesperson Lisa Thompson said in an email.
Bradenton area residents have seen the creatures feasting on fish in ponds in their backyards. And they’re shooing them away from their pets. Some locals have even seen them dashing through drains.
“I first saw them many years ago at GT Bray when I was walking through the park. I saw two of them in a stream, and it made me smile because they were just so cute and they seemed so sweet,” Manatee County native Tracy Prandine said.
Years later, on Jan. 18, Prandine would spot the small carnivorous marine mammals again, this time on her back porch, while FaceTiming her mother. When she saw two otters swimming around in the lake behind her condo, she quickly hung up and got her camera, getting close enough to take a few photos — but not too close, she said.
“I was surprised they didn’t run away really fast,” Prandine said. “I kept getting closer and closer, and then if I got too close, I could hear it hiss at me, and I was like, all right, I’m going to back up.”
She equated seeing an otter with seeing an elephant or a giraffe.
“It just makes you smile, and they’re just animals you don’t see very often in their natural environment, usually at a zoo,” she said. “Being able to see them swimming around and eating fish while on my porch is a bonus and pretty special.”
For local residents who have encountered river otters, their stories are either astonishing or downright horrifying.
Samantha Thornton, who lived in Massachusetts before moving to Bradenton 10 years ago, said she’s still amazed at the wildlife she sees in her backyard, from osprey to otter.
Thornton is sure otters are living under her deck and often sees them in her yard feeding on fish and other animals.
“I’ve had a huge iguana on my deck,” she said. “The wildlife that comes out of this lake is crazy.” “We have giant snapping turtles, soft-shell turtles and red-eared slider turtles — all kinds of cool stuff.”
While otters appear to be gentle, sleek, and friendly with one another, they also have a dark side. If you come across one while walking your dog, you should probably turn around.
“I generally try and keep my pets away from the otters,” Thornton said. “Sometimes I let my dogs out not knowing there was already an otter in my yard, and the otter gets very mean.”
If you search “Florida Otters” on Youtube, you’ll see just how feisty they can get. Videos show otters having it out with an alligator, a caiman, even a coyote.
Last May, a Seminole County resident captured video of an otter chasing a coyote. Some viewers thought the otter was attempting to defend its offspring from the coyote.
“River otters are not inherently aggressive animals,” Thompson said.”Like other wildlife, river otters can become defensive during mating season, when they have offspring, or when they feel threatened.”
There have been countless stories of otters attacking dogs in nearby St.Petersburg and Lakeland.
Thompson’s advice on how to keep your pet safe is to treat otters as you would any other wild animal, regardless of their appearance.
“While river otters are social with each other, people should not allow their pets to interact with otters or other wildlife,” Thompson said. “To minimize risk to pets do not allow pets to range freely or to approach wildlife, including otters.”
For Thornton, having otters live underneath her deck is actually a good thing and shouldn’t be looked at as a pest. According to the National Environmental Education Foundation, their presence is a signal that the ecosystem is healthy. If you live near a lake, pond, or river that has no otters, there is a chance that the water is polluted.
“River otters play an important role in Florida’s freshwater ecosystems as a predator within their habitats. River otters contribute to a healthy prey population by feeding on weaker and sicker prey that is easier to catch,” Thompson said. “The fish are a popular prey item not only among otters, but also with turtles, wading birds, eagles, osprey, raccoons and snakes.”