National Zoological Park, North American River Otter, 1930, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Image no. SIA_000095_B48_F20_004.

Otterly Awesome Otter Day Post

Taking time to appreciate these mustelids is something we otter do.

I’ve written a few blog posts in the past centered around various national days—Cookie Day, Hamburger Day, Ampersand Day. Those all had a technology slant to them. Today’s post is different. It has absolutely nothing to do with IT or our website. It’s just about otters. Why? Because I really love otters. Seriously, my profile picture for this site features an otter sitting on my shoulder.

Andrew with a small otter on his shoulder.

Otters are mustelids, a family of carnivorous mammals with elongated bodies, short legs and thick fur. This family also include weasels, martins, badgers, skunks, ferrets, wolverines, and minks, among others.  All mustelids, with the exception of the sea otter, have scent glands that produce strong-smelling secretions. 

As I mentioned before, I love otters, and when my job as the Archives web developer requires me to test parts of the website, I often end up using a lot of our collections that feature otters. I’m fairly certain that my coworkers have come to expect an otter to show up at some point in any beta testing that gets done (that, or pictures of Smokey Bear). The image, below, featuring otters romping at the National Zoo tends to show up a lot.

Two wet otter on a rock.

I stay fairly well up-to-date on the otter collections available on our site, as I use “otter” as a test search term a lot. There’s a report on sea otter surveys in the 1950s by biologist C. J. Lensink, for instance. There’s also a journal naturalist Vernon Bailey kept in 1907 on his trip to Michigan and Minnesota, in which he described tracks that indicated that “an otter had climbed to the top of the cliff and slid around on the snow to the creek above the falls.” Bailey wrote that the otter “had also been all along the creek below & in several places back in the woods.”

Lucile Mann stares directly into a camera and holds a monkey.

But, one of my all-time favorites is a journal that writer, editor, and explorer Lucile Mann kept while traveling the National Geographic Society-Smithsonian Institution Expedition to the Dutch East Indies in 1937. Mann recounted how when an NBC crew came to interview her husband, William Mann, during their trip, they also tried to take sound recordings of some of the animals the Manns had collected—a tiger, a black leopard, and a small-clawed otter. She noted the recording of the tiger was lost and that the black leopard roared, but “incidentally he nicked one man in the leg, and the man swore, and the mike had to be suddenly moved out of reach of the unpremeditated profanity.” The otter? The otter had been squeaking since it came on board, but “was stricken with sudden shyness” when faced with a microphone.

But the best otter story in Lucile Mann’s diary is that of Mr. Van Greuter. Mr. Van Greuter was an elderly man in Besitang that the Manns visited on June 24, 1937. While Van Greuter lived in “obviously reduced circumstances,” he still maintained a personal collection of animals, including a tame leopard,  a dozen monkeys, several birds, a baby mustang, and two “beautiful tame otters.” Van Greuter let the otters out of their cage, and they “ran about the place like dogs, squeaking with excitement, letting anyone pet them, begging for food under the dining room window.” The Manns were so impressed by the otters that William asked Van Greuter if he might consider selling them.

“No” was Van Greuter’s response.

"I don't blame you," was all William Mann could say in response.

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