Animal Tales

Otter Exhibit Brings the Fun

Otter ExhibitThe Milwaukee County Zoo serves many purposes – education, conservation, preservation. But there’s no denying it’s also a place of great fun. That sense of fun will be on full display at the North American river otter exhibit set to open in May. Children of all ages will delight in watching the otters run, splash and generally goof around. “Otters are one of the only animals that play for fun and no other reason,” says Rhonda Crenshaw, area supervisor of small mammals. “They exude happiness.”

Zoo officials were looking for a signature exhibit to greet visitors coming through the Zoo’s new west entrance, similar to the penguin exhibit that greets visitors near the main entrance. They wanted an animal that was native to North America and able to stay outside year round. North American river otters fit the bill.

Because the exhibit was built from the ground up, Crenshaw was able to get many elements of her dream otter exhibit in the design. It includes a deep pool, a splash pad and a river area with moving water. The land area includes different substrates such as dirt, grass and rock. “It was important for them to have different materials to dig in,” Crenshaw says. The otters will have a water slide that will look nothing like the tiny kids’ slide that was in the indoor otter exhibit years ago. “This is a massive, 15-foot extravaganza of a slide,” says Trish Khan, curator of primates and small mammals.

Otter ExhibitVisitors are also in for a treat. The exhibit includes underwater viewing and an artificial tree that children can climb inside to see the otters’ den. Guests can watch keepers train the otters in two areas. “Kids can get right up to the glass, nose to nose,” Khan says. Crenshaw is excited to see the otters play in the snow once winter arrives.

To fill the exhibit, the Zoo is getting three female otters, all born last spring – two sisters from Buttonwood Park Zoo in Massachusetts and one from Miller Park Zoo in Illinois. A male will arrive in summer from Zoo Montana. Crenshaw and Khan made sure to include an off-exhibit maternity den for baby otters someday.

Amongst all the fun, Crenshaw hopes to squeeze in some education. Many people don’t know that river otters are one of 13 species of otter. Their bodies are highly adapted to life in water and on land. Their eyes and ears are on top of their heads for surface swimming, but they also have a third eyelid that allows them to see underwater. Their muscular tails propel them through the water, and they can use their thumbs and forepaws to grasp prey, mostly fish. “Everything about them is specialized,” Crenshaw says. Trust us, learning was never this much fun.

From the May-June 2018 issue of Wild Things