By Hannah Lee Leidy/Correspondent
In the fall of 2020, Scotland County Animal Control got word about an otter. She was unconscious on the side of the road, with several shattered teeth, a lacerated lip, and possibly broken hips—but,somehow, alive.
Suspecting a car hit the animal, Animal Control took her to a vet in Scotland County who treated her immediate injuries. They contacted the county’s only rehabilitator from Wildlife Rehab, Inc., whose members provide rehabilitation and care to orphaned, ill, and injured animals. The rehabber began working with the North American river otter, who became known as Olive. They assessed lasting impacts from her injuries and worked on restoring her mobility.
Wildlife rehabbers’ primary role is to release animals back into the wild upon recovery. However, they will consider alternative options in circumstances that make returning to the wild unsafe for the animal. As an older otter, Olive’s injuries made her slow and less agile than a recovered, younger otter might be. More strikingly, though, Olive approached her rehabber and other humans with fearless fascination, uncharacteristic for an animal that spent its life in the wild. Her extreme comfort around people and physical state increased her vulnerability in the wild. She needed another—permanent—home.
The Department of Natural and Cultural Resources contacted the North Carolina Aquarium at Roanoke Island. Among North Carolina’s aquariums, the Roanoke Island location has a unique history in otter rehabilitation. Past cases involved younger otters that returned to the wild post-rehab, but Olive caught their attention: “We’d just lost our resident river otter Molly in August,” says Elizabeth Huber, the aquarium’s husbandry curator.
“She was our only female otter. We all had this hole in our hearts, and then we found out about Olive. She was a chance to fill that.”
Upon careful review from Roanoke Island’s husbandry staff, the N.C. Aquarium’s Team of vets and the North American river otter Species Survival Program, Olive moved to the aquarium in November to continue her recovery and join their Wild Wetlands program. She spent the first30days quarantining in the aquarium’s external otter habitat, which is closed to the public. “This gave us some time to get to know her,” Huber says. “And she’s been a sweetheart this whole time.”
They continued Olive’s recovery and rehabilitation and determined if her state allowed her to join the aquarium’s public gallery. Much of their work with Olive involved training her to receive human care and adapt the Wild Wetlands habitats.
For example, she learned that tapping a target object with her nose will earn her a rewarding whistle blow. On command, she can stand, hold out her paws, or display her underbelly during routine check-ups.
Starting in February, the staff introduced Olive to the public Wild Wetlands habitat, an enclosure complete with towering trees and rocky nooks bordering an underwater habitat.
To the delight of her trainers, Olive took well to the new environment, swimming with ease, chomping on vegetables, and playing around the habitat’s structures, where she spends most mornings in solitude.
The next phase of her training involves meeting the aquarium’s other otter residents, Finn and Banks. The two young otters grew up together at the aquarium and draw attention to the exhibit with their racing and aquatic antics. The handlers started familiarizing the otters with each other through two enclosures separated by a glass pane. Once visually comfortable together, they’ll progress to physical introductions.
“We will always be teaching her new things,” Huber says.
Olive’s overwhelmingly receptive response to her new home and trainers separates her from other animals that spent their lives in the wild.
“She’s definitely quirky. And we don’t Know if that’s just Olive being herself, or if she suffered some sort of head trauma from her accident,” Huber says.
Injury-induced or not, Olive’s amiable personality helped her assimilation to the aquarium’s environment and her new trainers. She swims eagerly up to visitors when they approach the Wild Wetlands gallery and plays with enrichment toys, the logs, hollow floats, and interactive structures the aquarium staff puts in habitats to pique animals’ curiosity and provide extra stimulation.
“She’s a great ambassador for her species. She has an amazing story to tell that really shows the functions zoos and aquariums play in rescuing and rehabilitating wild animals,” Huber says. “If we can’t release her, we still get to meet her and share her story with everyone.”