Cuddling the tiny baby in one hand, Brittany Patrick, a wildlife health technician with the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge, uses her free hand to bottle feed an infant on Monday morning.
The squeals of approval coming from the baby as his belly is filled could easily be mistaken for the sounds of a human baby — but, he's an otter.
After receiving a call on Sunday, March 24, the refuge welcomed their newest member of the family, a two-pound North American River Otter. Amanda Wilkerson, executive director at the refuge, told The Log the pup was found alone in a yard in Destin's Kelly Plantation neighborhood.
Otters are actually more common in Destin than they appear to be, although finding an otters nest is an extremely difficult feat.
"To find the pup alone was kind of strange," said Wilkerson. "They're very naturally close to their family as pups."
Wilkerson said the curious encounter with the lone pup could have been caused by a number of factors, including something happening to the pups’ mother or the baby otter could simply have gotten confused and wandered off.
The pup, which appears to be between six and eight weeks old, seems to be in a relatively good health, according to ECWR employees and volunteers.
"He didn't show signs of external parasites," said Patrick, adding that they were treating him just in case. The otter pup did, however, present signs of anemia, but that’s not uncommon for a baby found in the wild alone.
Depending on the timeline, the pups’ rehabilitation will likely take six months or so before he's ready to leave the refuge.
When he arrived at the ECWR, Wilkerson said they initially thought he might have a broken back leg because of his lack of mobility. At first, when he moved around he was slow, unsure and he pulled his back leg behind him.
"We definitely don't think there is anything wrong with his leg anymore," joked Wilkerson as she grabs the otter, which is trying to crawl underneath a table in the room. "He's getting around very well on his own now; he's quick."
According to Crista Stover, administrative assistant with ECWR, otters that are taken in by humans are highly susceptible to the dangers of domestication. Habitual creatures by nature, baby otters that are raised by humans can easily become "imprinted to their situation," said Stover. Stover adds that otters can become dependant when they are being fed and cared for because they will not learn how to care for themselves as they would in the wild.
Wilkerson told The Log that the bonding process is greatly important for the development of young otters.
"Otter pups are naturally born afraid of the water," Wilkerson said. To conquer their fear of water in the wild, the otter mother begins dragging her babies to the water — in the same way a mother dog would carry her pups by the scruff of their neck.
After the ECWR officials feel that the otter is well enough to be moved, he will either go to an accredited park that’s equipped to take care of him, or to the refuge’s newly-acquired Sasquatch Zoo in Crestview.
"It depends how he and our other otters get along," said Wilkerson. The refuge is currently home to two adult otters — six-year-old Pebbles and 17-year-old Sharky. Their most recent acquisition hasn’t been named yet, and they don’t even know if it’s a male or female.
Acting as the pups’ primary caregiver, Patrick said she can tell that he's becoming attached to refuge employees.
At night, the ECWR employees bring the babies home with them for nighttime feedings, and Patrick told The Log that she brought the pup home with her on his first night at the refuge.
Feeding the pint-sized otter from a baby bottle full of what refuge officials call "otter formula," Patrick holds the wee otter much like she would hold a human baby.
"Otter pups need social time," said Patrick. "They can actually become depressed if they lack attention, whether it’s from their mother in the wild or from their caregivers."
As the pups' tank is refilled, he becomes more comfortable in Patrick’s arms, snuggling further down into the baby blanket that's wrapped around him.
Just like human babies, young otters spend a lot of time sleeping, according to ECWR officials. As soon as he's finished with his lunch, the pup leaves the familiar arms of Patrick for the comfort of his bed — a small green plastic box filled with pillows and blankets. Within a second he is asleep.
WANT TO HELP?
For more information on the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge — and updates on the otter pup — please visit their Facebook page, Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge or their website ecwildliferefuge.com.
If you encounter an animal in need of assistance, please call the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge immediately at 650-1880.