Our previous experiences with river otters at Yellowstone’s Trout Lake only proved to ratchet up our desire to find our newfound friends when we visited the national park in the summer of 2013.
As soon as we arrived in Yellowstone, we made an effort to hike to Trout Lake and see what remarkable insight the otters would provide for us this year. And while that might seem like a presumptuous way of looking at the situation, it turned out to be a realistic view.
The female otter we had grown to know and love had another litter of offspring – this time three pups, though one was clearly smaller than the rest. Having spent such vast volumes of time at Trout Lake in the past, we began to understand these particular individuals, their habits and their territory.
Over the course of a month, we never failed to find the animals, even though many professional photographers complained they weren’t to be found. In fact, other than filmmakers’ Judy Lehmberg and Bob Landis, no one spent as much time as we did watching this remarkable family hard at work trying to survive in this unforgiving ecosystem.
The bugs were awful. The heat was unbearable. The hike up and down with our gear wore on us. The endless sprinting from one end of the lake to the other in order to be well positioned to catch the otter family hunting or returning to their den was treacherous. But no matter the conditions, we never grew tired of this incredible collection of mustelids.
While our previous year’s encounter provided insight into what some animals will do in order to care for a loved one, 2013’s observations forced us to watch the harsh realities of when love alone can’t beat the odds.
What started out as a joyous, rambunctious litter of three, devastatingly was reduced to one.
In training her pups to travel up and down river for their eventual mini-migration, it’s believed a coyote was able to kill one of the pups. Shortly after the pup’s death, heartbroken and phobic of another predator attacking, the mother spent less time feeding her young and more time ensuring their safety. The sad consequence was malnutrition and within a short period of time, a second pup died.
Reaching Trout Lake one morning, we found the female trying to bring her dead pup back to life. She’d look at us and cry out, as if asking for help, before she’d nudge, lick and cuddle the dead pup, hoping for a miracle.
Remarkably, the surviving pup was the runt. Against all odds, its two larger siblings failed to survive their first few weeks outside of the den, but here was the runt – still vastly undersized, but most certainly alive. For now.
The mother spent almost 24 full hours holding her dead pup – not leaving it even for a minute to eat or hunt. And nor did the runt.
Eventually the female picked up the dead pup and swam it into the den. Neither pup nor mother ever returned to that den site. It became too much for either to bear; it was their grave for a beloved lost member of their family, one that had been reduced in numbers far too quickly.
As the days went by, the family changed their patterns, but started to resume their lives and sought out food wherever they could find it. The runt wasn’t big enough to fish, so like the female’s previous paraplegic pup, she would place it on the shore while she went fishing.
With the death of two of her pups clearly still top of mind for her, she wasn’t satisfied with leaving her remaining young on its own. So she found a babysitter.
At first, out of nowhere, another otter appeared. We never were able to ascertain its gender or relation to the family we had been documenting, but we’ve since learned otters will help other otters when they are in a time of need. But when the otter sitter moved on, the mother sought new help, this time from a human: Jill.
Every time the female went hunting, she’d swim the pup to wherever Jill was sitting and would place it in the grass beside her. If Jill moved, she would move the pup. If the pup moved, she’d force it to return. If anyone else – me included – wanted to join Jill, the mother would express her clear displeasure.
It took a few times for us to understand what was happening, but gradually we began to get the message – this otter was accustomed to people and while she might have been unsure of what we were, she equally knew we weren’t a threat. Why she felt more comfortable with Jill than anyone else – including the many people fishing or taking photographs – is beyond me, but Jill’s calm, gentle demeanour no doubt helped the otter mom feel at ease in her presence.
So everyday, for a week, the otter would use Jill to protect her pup as she caught enough fish to build up their strength.
Finally, the day came when it was clear that the pup was strong enough for their yearly journey downstream. Both otters swam over to the den-turned-grave site. On a log by its entrance, they nursed, they ate their last meal of trout, and then they each took turns looking into what had been their den’s front door. In what could only be described as a mourning process, the two otters embraced and curled up tightly, mother holding her young, with all joy being erased from their dear faces. Finally, they moved back into the water and swam to the waterfall that leads downstream, to the first step of their migration to the big rivers. As they climbed over the debris littering the small falls and waddled down the stream, we knew they were leaving Trout Lake for good.
As otters keep their young for just under a year before the pups leave in search of their own home to live out their life expectancy of ten years in the wild, we had a heavy heart all winter reminiscing about this family, knowing that we’d likely never know what became of the pup Jill had a hand in raising. Given its size, we knew that it faced long odds of survival. Still, we longed for the next summer and a trip to Trout Lake – a place that had become our favourite spot in the grandest park of them all.
When our 2014 trip finally arrived, it was obvious that our first stop would be, yet again, this incredible otter hot spot. Yet for the first time in who-knows-how-many visits we struck out finding otters. In fact, visit after visit failed to yield any sign of the mustelids.
Finally, one afternoon, on trip number fourteen, we found our friends. Did our favourite mom have pups? No. She had something even better.
For a reason we’ll never understand, the female returned, but didn’t mate. Rather than separate after the winter months, the little runt – the otter that didn’t appear longed for this world, especially after losing two of its siblings – had stayed with the mother and here they both were, back where we had last seen them.
Though they were far harder to track and observe, we spent a week watching the unbreakable bond between mother and young – watched them continue to prioritize play; watched them continue to prune; watched them continue to allow us incredible insight into their rarely documented behaviour.
And like previous years, one day the otters went down stream and disappeared. We’ll never know where they go and, for the most part, we are never able to write their final chapters. But what we have seen is the stuff of legend – stories of beauty and love; of resiliency and compassion.
For all that we see in the wild, nothing is as compelling as the stories played out by the otters of Trout Lake, each proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that animals are thoughtful, emotional beings who deserve our admiration, respect and, most of all, our protection.
Long may you live, my friends. And long may we learn from you.
Founder of the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition, Simon Jackson is a storyteller, connector and movement builder committed to improving our pubic discourse and shaping a better balance between the needs of people and nature. His GhostBearPhotography.com column appears on the first Saturday of every month.