Orphaned otter finds a new home in Dubuque

North American river otter newest addition at National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium

A North American River otter explores it's enclosure at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, 350 E. Third
A North American River otter explores it’s enclosure at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, 350 E. Third St., in Dubuque, Iowa on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019. The museum adopted the orphaned otter after it got some rehabilitation. The otter was found in June 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

DUBUQUE — The newest resident of the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque had a rough start in life.

When a call came into the Iowa of Department of Natural Resources last summer about a baby North American river otter found near the governor’s mansion in Des Moines, he was far from any major sources of water. He’d been crying loudly for hours when the Iowa of Department of Natural Resources got the call. They weren’t sure how the small animal, estimated at just two months old, had ended up there, and attempts to find his mother weren’t successful

That’s when they called Anna Swarhoff of Altoona, who is licensed through the DNR to do wildlife rehabilitation. She mostly cares for animals like injured raccoons and squirrels in her backyard, but this was the first time she’d been asked to take in a river otter.

“He was a very unusual animal to get. From my understanding, I was the only one in Iowa locally to have ever had the pleasure of taking in a river otter,” she said.

She named him Emmitt, and had to bottle feed him for several months. She didn’t know anything about the needs of river otters, so got advice from the Des Moines zoo and from a rehabilitation facility for river otters in Florida.

After adjusting to his new home in an enclosure complete with wading pool in Swarhoff’s backyard, Emmit did well, Swarhoff said.

“He kind of turned into what I would call a puppy. Very energetic, very playful,” she said. “The biggest challenge was teaching him how to swim.”


In the wild, river otter mothers hold their babies in the water to force them to acclimate to the water. So Swarhoff had to mimic that behavior, even though it felt strange to be holding a baby animal under water.

“It took several weeks before he was comfortable being in the water. That was a huge milestone for both of us,” she said.

In the wild, river otters typically stay with their mothers for about two years, Swarhoff said. Just over a year after she took him in, she decided to try releasing him in the river nearest to where he was found. Her license mandates she attempt to release all the animals in her care after they are rehabilitated.

But when they got to the water, he seemed hesitant to enter the water, waiting for her to walk down the bank with him. He finally did jump in, but struggled in the current, and then came back to shore near her and laid down, exhausted.

After they got back home, Swarhoff called the Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium and the DNR, and they got the ball rolling on giving Emmitt a permanent home in the aquarium, which already had experience caring for river otters.

River otters are social creatures by nature, and Emmitt didn’t have the skills he needed to interact with other wild otters or to survive on his own, explained Abby Urban, curator of living collections at the Aquarium.

“We just knew we had to act and provide care for him to survive,” she said. “Everyone wanted what was best for the animal.”

After renovations to a portion of their “Flooded forest” exhibit, which includes fish, amphibians, ducks and other animals native to the same habitat as North American river otters, they were ready for the new otter to arrive. The museum staff haven’t decided if they will continue to call him Emmitt or if they will rename him.


Part of the decision about his name could be decided by training needs. River otters are intelligent animals and can learn basic voice commands. That can help staff care for them, said Marianne Kirkendall, veterinarian at the aquarium. They can be taught to obey commands jump on a scale or open their mouths so their teeth can be examined, for example. In captivity, handlers provide puzzles and activities to the otters, Kirkendall said, as in the wild they’d be solving problems to find food and survive.

“Their intelligence is both a blessing and a challenge in keeping them occupied,” she said.

Swarhoff cautioned that despite their playfulness and intelligence, otters would not make good pets. They are wild animals, and can bite and be aggressive.

“They may be adorable, but they are a lot of work. You really need to know what you’re doing,” she said.

Emmitt arrived at the aquarium in the wee hours of the morning on Monday and quickly settled into his new home, Urban said. In the exhibit, which is about 600 square feet, he has plenty of room to swim, sand and soil and straw to dig in and rocks and logs to climb. Initially he was placed behind boards blocking visual access to the rest of the aquarium to keep his stress levels down, but those should be removed soon, allowing the public to see him, staff said.

The aquarium already had another otter, named Momma. She’s 18 — geriatric, in otter years, as in the wild they typically don’t live past 10. The two animals probably won’t be introduced to each other, Urban said, as Momma is “fairly set in her ways,” and may be stressed by an energetic youngster. Momma previously had a male companion, who died last year, and she raised three pups of her own, who now live in other accredited zoos and aquariums.

The museum plan to introduce a third otter, a female nearer Emmitt’s age, in the future, to provide him with social interactions and potentially to breed more otters.

The goal, Urban said, is for zoos and aquariums to not take otters from the wild but only have those bred in captivity. The breeding program also provides a sort of emergency backstop in case a disaster like disease were to befall the wild population.


At one point, wild river otters had disappeared from Iowa, she said — it’s only in the last couple of decades that their population has returned, thanks to conservation efforts.

“They’re a good indicator of the health of the river habitat — they need a healthy fish population for their diet,” Urban said.

In his new role at the aquarium, Urban said Emmitt — or whatever name he ends up with — is an important part of those conservation efforts, by providing education and exposure to the public.

“He’s kind of an ambassador for his species,” she said. “Actually having that face to face viewing and seeing that live animal can really impact people’s passion for conservation and that animal.”

That makes Swarhoff glad she was able to save him.

“I was a little sad to see him go, but I knew it was time. It made my rehab experience all worth it. You do it as a hobby, and then something good like this comes from it,” Swarhoff said. “So many other people will get to enjoy him now.”

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