“He came to us as a pathetically squeaking and helpless ball of fur, with tightly closed little eyes, held in the gnarled and weathered hands of our security guard Petrus, whose eloquent explanation, ‘There is no mother and there is no father,’ said it all.”
Aonyx capensis is an elusive little creature. Found living near permanent water sources, Cape clawless otters – also known as African clawless otters – have claimed the Caprivi area in Namibia as their home. Not that this will necessarily ensure you spotting one. Otters prefer splashing about the fresh waters and having fun with those of their own kind to cuddling up to humans. Or so it was previously believed.
Enter Ottie the Otter, and man’s perspective of this slippery water creature changed forever.
A curious investigation into human ways
Ottie had now been with us for about two weeks, and was becoming stronger every day. His wobbly meanderings became more purposeful as his co-ordination improved and his eyes began focussing more sharply on absolutely everything around him. It was all of immense interest and had to be investigated. An ‘Ottie investigation’ always involved his mouth, which gauged the chewability of the object under investigation, and at this stage Ottie was equipped with a formidable array of small razor-sharp baby teeth, which may well have been the pride and joy of any great white shark.
Neither did anything escape the attention of his little hands, which seemed to have a life of their own, always moving and particularly attracted to any hole, crease or fold in the human body. These areas became even more attractive when the body in question was either asleep or in the process of trying to sleep.
Ottie’s capacity for play was endless, with no off switch, and at any time of the day or night. Playing was always done while he was on his back, exposing the on switch on his tummy. All it needed to be activated was the slightest touch of a hand.
The otter’s voice
Ottie used a high-pitched squeak as a distress call, particularly when he woke to find himself alone and hungry. The pitch and intensity of these squeaks would rise and intensify when he received no response, whereupon he would embark on a searching expedition.
He gave a very loud, guttural grunt of alarm when surprised, and this was always accompanied by an evasive backing away from the source of alarm but still facing the potential threat.
Later on he developed a low drawn-out hum as a joyful greeting, often accompanied by a series of excited yipping as he came bounding towards us after a long absence. He used the same drawn-out hum when being chastised for some misdemeanour. Both these events would invariably be accompanied with much reconciliatory kissing that would totally melt even the staunchest of hearts.
When Ottie was fed a piece of fish or some chicken necks, he would give an appreciative hiss and strangely would always take offered food in an extremely gentle way from our hands, never snapping or grabbing.
Another distinct sound he made was a chortling yowl when he was being played with, and particularly when his ample tummy was being tickled roughly while he was lying on his back. During these times of play he would occasionally also make a distinctive tongue-clicking sound.
Mannerisms and dietary requirements
A particularly endearing mannerism that Ottie developed over the years was his morning face-wiping ritual.
The first thing he did when he woke up, was to squirm around, stretching and wiping his eyes and mouth with tightly clenched hands, much the same as people do when wiping the sleep from their eyes. He would do this religiously – sometimes accompanied by a sneeze or two – before starting his normal daily routine. (I’ve no doubt this has a perfectly logical and natural explanation and is not done specifically to entertain us and ensure his cuteness.)
In the wild, African clawless otters eat a variety of things, primarily crabs, snails, mussels, frogs and, to a lesser extent fish, bird’s eggs, young fledglings and a host of other edible items found in a normal river ecosystem. Interestingly he would always start eating a fish from the tail end, and this persisted throughout adulthood and even when he was foraging in the river. Wild otters on the other hand are described as eating fish from the head down.
We tried to vary his diet to accommodate our isolated situation and the possibility of not being able to provide him with fresh fish all the time, as it soon became clear that he had quite an appetite. Canned food was the answer in emergencies, so we tried a variety of tinned cat foods.
Lucky Pet with whole pilchards
As Ottie demonstrated early on, he was a fussy little eater, demonstrating a definite preference for an obscure, cheap cat food branded Lucky Pet with whole Pilchards. Unfortunately for us, this particular brand didn’t suit the larger cat population in our surroundings, and was locally not that readily available.
When it was, we bought up the entire stock and consequently had boxes of Lucky Pet stored in all sorts of places most of the time. It also was top of the list for visitors who offered to bring supplies from towns and cities along on their journey to visit us. (Some of these visitors were often friends who knew of my aversion to cats and generated some confusion when they were told to ‘buy the whole shop if you can’.)
All’s well that ends well
After four years of being part of the Paxton family, Ottie eventually returned to the wild, comfortably taking on his position as top predator of the Okavango River system and crucial member of the African clawless otter community of northern Namibia.
Says Mark: “Our policy with all the wild animals we’ve reared was that they should be left to their own devices whenever possible. We are particularly set against caging or unreasonably restricting any wild creature under our care.”
Mark and his wife Charlie are passionate conservationists and naturalists, focussed especially on environmentally related issues and community development. The Paxtons are based at Shamvura in the Kavango Region. To hear more tales about Ottie, contact Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org
Travel News Namibia Winter 2013 edition.
Learn more about the Cape/African clawless otter