Santa Barbara Zoo's Asian Small-Clawed Otters take their first deep pool swim
Mary Crookston

Eager otter enthusiasts surrounded the Asian Small-Clawed Otter exhibit at the Santa Barbara Zoo on Wednesday, January 26. Why? To see the Asian-small clawed otter pups take their first swim—in a pool of any real depth, at least.

According to zookeeper Samantha Ratti, the little otters are born unable to swim, and the parents have to teach them in safe, shallow pools. Born August 20, these pups have been training for this debut since they were 12 weeks old.

So on Wednesday a hoard of onlookers awaiting the otters’ scheduled 10 a.m. entrance. Eagerness turned into skepticism as the minutes passed and the otters refused to emerge from their haven inside a large, artificial rock. Rick Block, CEO of the Santa Barbara Zoo, joked after a long, bated-breath filled silence: “That’s all folks, thanks for coming!”

Santa Barbara Zoo's Asian Small-Clawed Otters take their first deep pool swim
Mary Crookston

These devotees were not easily discouraged though, and the crowd’s patience paid off as the teeny creatures finally came ambling out of their hole. Running in an impenetrable pack, they darted around the familiar part of the exhibit, nervous about approaching the new five-foot-deep pool. The crowd would gasp as they bolted up to the pool, and sigh as they bolted back into their safety zone. At many points, they even tried to re-enter their hole into hiding.

The logs bridging the familiar exhibit with the intimidating new pool provided the ideal spot to perch in indecision. A young boy on his father’s shoulders, perplexed in his own right, said, “Why do they no go in the water? Only the logs?”

Litter of Asian small-clawed otters born at the S.B. Zoo.
Sheri Horiszny (file)

But as soon as one dove into the pool, the others followed. Frolicking in the water, the pups darted out to take rest breaks composed of hurriedly circling their whole exhibit. Their energy was both endearing and exhausting as they flew around, water and wind together encouraging their fur to clump into tiny spikes.

No doubt, these treasured new otters — devoid of fear, swimming skills honed — have a new oasis.

The audience was not composed of distant admirers; many were “foster feeders” of the otters. Mike and Judy Kemp actually foster-fed other Asian small-clawed otters years ago, and have a lasting bond with the breed. “My mom always liked animals, and otters were the smallest at the zoo, so we began foster feeding in honor of her. It’s nice to feel like she’s a part of this,” said Mike Kemp.

Asian Small-Clawed Otter exhibit
Mary Crookston

He wasn’t kidding, small they are. About “two feet long and weighing under 10 pounds,” according to the zoo, “they are less than half the size of North American river otters.”

Their “smallness” should not (for safety reasons) be mistaken for docility. Ratti admitted that they’re “pretty ferocious,” enough so that even zookeepers “don’t go in their habitat. We stand outside and throw food in.” They also have large appetites for being so small, eating four times each day, according to the zoo.

From the vantage point of onlookers with no reason to fear the tiniest otter species’ sharp teeth and savage spunk, the pups give every appearance of being lovable little darlings. It is incredibly enjoyable to safely observe them, from behind a barrier, as they splash in their new waterhole.


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