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The Story Of A River Otter Found Dead In A Snare

Naturalist Susan Marsh Says It Is Time That Society Had An Adult Conversation About The Impact Of Fur Trapping

Photo credit: Dmitry Azovtsev, www.daphoto.info
Photo credit: Dmitry Azovtsev, www.daphoto.info
In early December I found a river otter caught in a snare. I wondered how I knew to find her. Was I guided by a thread I could not see as I bent to photograph starry ice crystals and trapped bubbles frozen in the ice of a beaver pond?

Were the bubbles her last breaths?

I could have easily missed her, taking my usual route around the ponds where the lighting and backdrop is best for photography. I could have found another sand path to the river. But the invisible thread connecting us led me to the place where she lay.

The animals are calling. When will we listen? The otter called me to witness her silky coat now dried and sprinkled with sand, tufts of fur pulled free in her struggle among the willows. The sole of her hind foot, turned in supplication toward the sky, her face turned away as if she didn’t want to see. But she wanted me to see.

The snare around her neck was not meant for her, it was laid to catch the beavers who had worked all season on a magnificent pair of dams, who wintered in a newly decorated lodge with a supply of cottonwood twigs nearby to feed the kits. Chorus frogs and puddle ducks would come in the spring. Herons would follow, and eagles from the river. The beavers were the architects of a half-acre ecosystem.
"The snare around her neck was not meant for her, it was laid to catch the beavers who had worked all season on a magnificent pair of dams, who wintered in a newly decorated lodge with a supply of cottonwood twigs nearby to feed the kits."
The animals are calling. When will we respond? Oh sweetheart, I said to the carcass. I’m so sorry. A small sad prayer, a pang of grief, a tear withheld in favor of words and worry about my dog. It was easier to yell at Maya to stick close as I marched away than to feel the depth of my sorrow.

Witness, the otter said, and tell my story. I told my friends what I had found. I composed a letter to the editor. I sent a photo to Wyoming Untrapped and it’s posted on their website with a warning for dog owners. I called Game and Fish, and the warden found the snare. The accidental trapping of an otter is no crime, and the snare was properly tagged. An unfortunate mistake. 

Otters are supposedly protected, but it’s not illegal to set a beaver snare right beside the river. How is this protection? It feels more like a set-up.

This otter, as all otters do, traveled with her family. You can tell by watching that they have complex social lives, a high degree of intelligence, and a penchant for fun. Can these attributes be reduced to an accidental pelt? Can the pelt even be taken if it came from a non-target species? 

Since the pelt is the only part of the otter that has value in our culture, we have no measure for the loss of this small life. But I’ll bet the otters do. Bison and ravens and crows hold funerals—why not otters?

I still haven’t told her story. And I’m not sure I can. One can reach only so far into the life of another, especially when the first meeting is after death. 

It’s like piecing together a stranger’s history when driving past a car wreck. You want to know about their kids, their home, what they did in life. Most of the time, unless it’s someone locally important, there isn’t an obituary, no memorial open to the public. It is the same with wildlife. We see them crumpled along the roadway, find a trail of blood in the snow. They are anonymous to us. We feel sad and wish it could be different as we speed along the pavement to our errands.
"I still haven’t told her story. And I’m not sure I can. One can reach only so far into the life of another, especially when the first meeting is after death." 
The state of Wyoming steadfastly resists any suggestion of trapping reform. Trapping is treated as a god-given right, regardless of the trapper’s need for warm clothing or a supplemental income. It’s a practice, like hunting, that is considered recreation. But couldn’t some tiny step be made to protect non-target species? Notwithstanding their own right to life and the great good beavers do for the local environment, would it not be possible, where both beaver and otter families share space, to require that snares be set back from the river? 

Traps are indiscriminate, catching whatever investigates them, from otters to grizzly bears. In my mind I design the next generation of traps as if I were in charge. They would be ‘smart’—fitted with a microchip that could detect the species approaching through the instantaneous analysis of breath, the DNA of a toenail. Refuse to close around the pet dog, otter or bear. That’s certainly a pipe dream, though perhaps a more likely one than hoping to achieve a measure of reform.

When I find small roadkill, or increasingly, ‘trail-kill’ in places with fast-moving bikes, I move the snake or vole or songbird into the brush. I often wonder why—it does the deceased no good, but it seems like the polite thing to do. Why let it be run over again and again until it’s a flattened stain? Why not honor the small life lost, place it where a scavenger can find it without also being killed?
River otter in Yellowstone River; Neal Herbert; December 2015
River otter in Yellowstone River; Neal Herbert; December 2015
I have a sense that wild animals, as in life, want to be left alone in death. Elk that are about to die often drift away from the herd, lingering on the far slope of a butte near the forest as if inviting predators. They know their time has come. I find carcasses curled in a sleeping pose in small defiles in the forest, the ones who had a choice in where to die and sought a private place. My sick and aging dogs have done the same, creating a little nest in the grass or under the deck. They didn’t want to be cajoled back into the house so the vet could put them down.

We seek communion with animals, yet we have to remind ourselves it can’t be on our terms alone. And without having years of immersion or a special knack, I’m not convinced we understand what their terms might be. I felt a dead otter’s call in some subconscious or imagined way. But beyond that sense, the kind that dissipates like a dream until you convince yourself it wasn’t real, I don’t know why I felt it. I didn’t lay hands on her; she was beyond healing. Did she want me to warn her kin? Who knew that I wasn’t warning them away as I stumbled through the willows yelling for my dog to stay close?

That’s the thing about wildlife for those of us who lack that special touch. We never really know their side of the relationship. We have enough in common to guess, if we’re paying attention. We think we care, we think we can help them, and often we do. Mostly by leaving them alone. Giving them space to get away from us. 

That’s why the Greater Yellowstone region, with sixteen million acres of wilderness and associated lands, harbors so much wildlife—we have so far allowed them space. Look at the road map for the state of Wyoming (U.S. Census Bureau has it on their website) and see where the large blanks spots on the map remain.

I still haven’t told her story. I’ve told mine, for what it’s worth. But only the otter can tell it, in her silent carcass way. It’s up to me what to do with a story that will always live in my heart. The animals are calling. How will we respond?

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Susan Marsh
About Susan Marsh

Susan Marsh spent three decades with the U.S. Forest Service and is today an award-winning writer living in Jackson Hole.
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