In April, a North American river otter was hit and killed by a car near Engelhard, leaving her two pups orphaned.
The six-week-old pups are now in the care of the zoo's Valerie H. Schindler Wildlife Rehab Center, where they will be treated and evaluated for several months, according to zoo spokeswoman Debbie Fuchs. The groups are hoping to reintroduce the pups to the wild, rather than keep them in captivity, Fuchs said.
The otter pups will transition from formula to solid food and then to catching fish on their own over the coming months, Fuchs said. The pups will be cared for in a safe, outdoor aquatic enclosure in the final stages of care, where they can prepare for their return to the wild.
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Curious, playful and excellent swimmers, otters are about 3-4 feet long on average and weigh between 12 to 23 pounds. The nocturnal, aquatic predators are important to the ecosystem because they reduce undesirable fish populations that compete for food with cold-water game fish, Fuchs said. Easily adaptable to living in warm, coastal marshes to cold mountain streams, they are active in the wild year-round.
The pups likely will be returned to the wild in late summer or early fall, Fuchs said.
Someone called and reported the orphaned pups to the Wildlife Resources Commission on April 23, Fuchs said. Kristin Clark, assistant husbandry curator at the Aquarium on Roanoke Island then transported the otters to the aquarium to check their health.
“My priorities were to make sure they were healthy and to determine that they were not conditioned to human interaction,” Clark said.
When animals become accustomed to human interaction, they may overly develop a reliance on people for food and other resources, Fuchs said.
The pups were next moved to the zoo in Asheboro, which has has successfully rehabilitated and released otters back into the wild before in conjunction with the Wildlife Resources Commission, Fuchs said.
The zoo's chief veterinarian, Dr. Jb Minter, checked the pups and saw they were in good condition with no obvious signs or injury or illness, Fuchs said.
“We are caring for them as hands-off as possible — we want to be respectful of their wild nature, ensuring natural behaviors are maintained for a successful release,” Minter said.
North American river otters had almost disappeared by the early 20th century because of unregulated trapping, water pollution and wetlands destruction, according to the Wildlife Resources Commission. In the 1990s, the NCWRC began a restoration effort in the mountains with 267 river otters relocated from coastal North Carolina. The otter population is now considered fully restored and abundant throughout North Carolina.
The zoo will be posting about the pups' progress on its social media pages, Fuchs said.