ASHEBORO, N.C. – Two North American river otter pups orphaned earlier this year at the North Carolina coast have been successfully rehabilitated and released as part of a cooperative effort between The NC Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC), the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island and North Carolina Zoo. The effort was based on valuable input and cooperation among the participating agencies to help ensure the animals’ well-being.
Found orphaned near Engelhard, N.C, on April 23, 2018, the female pups were just six weeks old after their mother was killed by a car. After they were found by a passerby, the pups were rescued by the NCWRC and taken to North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island where staff cared for them. The aquarium staff assessed their condition and decided they were good candidates for release back into the wild because they had not been exposed to excessive human contact.
The sister pups were transported to North Carolina Zoo’s Valerie H. Schindler Wildlife Rehabilitation Center for rehabilitation where they spent just under 16 weeks in the Zoo’s care.
The Zoo’s wildlife rehab center is the only center of its kind in the state that offers a safe, outdoor, aquatic enclosure. The otters received training on how to catch fish (something their mother would have taught them) as an example of how they were prepared for a return to the wild.
The Zoo coordinated the otters’ release with the aquarium and the NCWRC. The release took place in late August in Hertford County.
Halley Buckanoff, veterinary technician for the Zoo’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, said staff tended to their specialized needs including diet, housing, and general care. She said one of the biggest challenges is ensuring the animals maintained all of their wild behaviors and an appropriate fear of humans, so they can have all the skills necessary for a successful life in the wild.
“We look forward to more interagency collaborations in assisting North Carolina native wildlife,” said Buckanoff.
Colleen Olfenbuttel, the Black Bear and Furbearer Biologist with the NCWRC, said it’s critical the otters learned the skills need to survive in the wild.
“That is why the Commission appreciates the expertise the North Carolina Zoo provides in properly rehabilitating the otters,” she said. “People should not feed an orphaned wild animal because it will harm the animal. Instead, the Commission encourages the public to immediately call our NC Wildlife Helpline (866-318-2401) or one of our licensed rehabilitators if they suspect there is a young animal that is orphaned.”
"It was so great to be able to be there for a successful release," said Kristin Clark, assistant husbandry curator for the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island, who conducted the initial evaluation.
Clark said that during the transportation back to the coast, they made sure to reduce noise includingnot talking or conducting any interactions that could familiarize the otters with human activity.
She added: “This is exactly the kind of outcome we'd like to see in these situations, healthy otters that are not conditioned to human interaction released back to their natural environment.”
“Kudos to the staff of all of these agencies who worked together to care for and prepare these orphaned otters for their return to their native environment,” said Susi H. Hamilton, secretary of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. “I’m so proud to work with such caring and dedicated people.”
North American river otters had almost disappeared by the early 20th century because of unregulated trapping, water pollution, and wetlands destruction. In the 1990s, the NCWRC began a restoration effort in the mountains with 267 river otters relocated from coastal North Carolina. Thanks to this program, the otter population is now considered fully restored and abundant throughout North Carolina.