Another Excerpt from Frances Harper’s Mammals of the Okefinokee Swamp–The River Otter (Lutra canadensis)

I’ve been periodically posting excerpts from an obscure book published in 1925.  Below is Frances Harper’s collection of accounts about the river otter.  I’ve only seen a live wild otter once in my entire life when I accidentally drove my car  over an unfortunate otter’s paw on my honeymoon.  It was crossing a raised highway over a salt marsh in South Carolina. I tried to swerve to avoid it, but I should have kept going straight and I would have probably missed it.  Kind of ruined the whole evening for me.  I have seen otter scat on exposed river rocks, and there was an otter slide by a creek in the woods behind a house where I lived in Athens, Georgia 37 years ago.  My closest encounter came when a tame otter escaped its pen at the Okefenokee Swamp Zoo and sniffed my shoe.

Cruelty toward animals is evident in the below excerpt.  The locals acknowledged that otters made great pets, yet they  expressed no remorse about killing  them with  steel jaw traps.  Here’s the excerpt:

River Otter–Lutra canadensis vega

The Otter is generally distributed along the waterways of the swamp, such as Billy’s Lake, the Big Water, the canal, the numerous runs through the cypress bays, and the open water of the prairies.  It is also found on the Suwannee and St. Mary’s Rivers.  It is a rather shy animal, and I have not met with it in life in the swamp.  It is still fairly common, though its present numbers evidentally do not equal those of former years.

The distribution is said to vary somewhat with the season, and various theories are advanced on the subject.  David Lee says that during the winter the Otters follow the deeper waterways for the most part.  Their occurrences on the prairies (especially in the gator holes) seems more or less limited to the season of the year, when the Alligators are generally inactive.  In the summer they are hardly found in deep water, but out in the cypress bays.  For example, there are more of them along the shallow run through Billy’s Bay in the summer than at any other season.  He supposes this is on account of their fear of Alligators (which stay mostly in the deeper water of the swamp).

According to Sam Mizell, the Otters stay in the cypress bays especially in summer.  Some foiks think they are afraid of Gators out in the prairies.  They are commoner on the prairies in winter than summer.  For one thing, this is the rutting season, and they are disposed then to travel around more.

Allen Chesser expresses the opinion that they avoid the prairies in summer because it is too warm for them there at that season.  Yet he also considers it likely that Alligators prey upon them. 

In the Okefinokee parlance, an Otter slide is practically any place where the animals defecate.  This may be merely a log beside a watercourse, the sign being frequently noted in such a situation.  More commonly, according to Jackson Lee, it is some muddy spot, where the animals leave marks of scratching and wallowing, as well as faeces.  While such spots may not be exactly comparable to the regular Otter slides on sloping banks in other parts of the continent, yet they likely serve somewhat the same purpose.  Stream banks with any appreciable slope are quite lacking in the natural topography of the swamp, though they occur here and there along the canal.  David Lee has seen, in the winter time, tussocks in the cypress bays that were perforated with a number of holes or runways, and were littered with faeces; it also appeared as if the Otters had wallowed around there on top of the ground.

In addition to its diet of fish, the species feeds upon snakes, according to Allen Chesser.  In David Lee’s opinion, it may take crawfish occasionally, but only when pressed for hunger.  Harrison Lee states that in former years the Otters used to get corn in the field at the north end of Billy’s Island, and carry it off in the swamp.  This is the less surprising when one consders the highly varied diet of a tame Otter.  Such a one, which was once kept on Billy’s Island would “eat anything,” according to David Lee.  “It had to be shut up at mealtimes, or it would come right on the table.”

Regarding the Otter’s voice, Jackson Lee said, “I heard a Auter hollerin’ one time, an’ it hollered somep’n like a Redbird (the q-note of a Cardinal. Down on Billy’s Lake he was mighty busy; he was swimmin’ about in the lake, an’ done like he was a-trailin’ another Auter.  He wuz a might big un.  I watched ‘im for a while.  The other one might ‘a’ been in heat.  Must ‘a” been some’ere abut December, about 10 yearas ago.  I was huntin’ Auter at the time.”

Harrison and Farley Lee once killed an Otter on Minne’s Lake, and its mate, after being frightened off, came back, whistling for it–‘a little sort er like a Redbird.’

In regard to the mating season and the birth of the young, Allen Chesser said, “They hunt one ernother erlong in November.  I once found two matin’ out on the perairie.  I think they have their young about the last of February or the first er March.”  According to Bryant Lee, a female taken about the middle of December, 1916, contained three or four embryos about half an inch long.  David Lee recalls four embryos in one case; perhaps three in others.

Jackson Lee thinks the young come about February or March.  He gave the following account of once finding some young ones.  “It was February, the best I can remember, about 22 years ago, right down yonder against Scrub Island.  We had a ol’ dog that would go off an’ tree, an’ stay with it till we’d come; an’ Gip was a young dog we had with us.  As we wuz goin’ to this ol’ dog that had somep’n treed, Gip treed the Auter in a hollow cypress, an’ he got it out.  Then we heard a growlin’ in there, an’ saw three young Auters, an’ took ’em out.  We kep’ ’em fer two weeks, an’ their eyes never did open.  Fed ’em on milk, but they finally died.  The growlin’ we had heard wuz probably another ol’ Auter left in the stump.  We thought at the time it was the young uns, but they never growled any aft they wuz taken out.  The Cypress wuz out in the swamp, a good piece from any run, an’ it was kind er dry aroun’ there.”

About the middle of April, 1922, a young Otter was caught by an old colored man on Hull’s Creek, near the St. Mary’s River above Camp Pinckney.  It was said to have become gentle within a few moments.  It was soon made a household pet at the home of I.B. Loyd, near Folkston, where we had the good fortune to see it on July 8.  It was the particular favorite of two children, and the intimate playmate of  a cat.  It slid about on its stomach over the dirt in the yard, in a playful manner perhaps like that of wild Otters disporting themselves on their slides.  Altogether it was a most engaging little creature.  It ate greedily of watermelon, and was also said to feed upon tomatoes, dead birds, rats, and any kind of fresh meat.  A flea was seen on it.

Specimens from the swamp exhibit two types of coloration, which are well recognized by the residents, but are not considered due to differences of sex, age or season.  One is light brown; the other, dark brown, or occasionally almost black.

As the most valuable fur-bearing animal of the swamp, the Otter is much sought by the trappers, and its diminishing numbers indicate the urgent need of conservation.  It has long been without any protection whatever under the laws of Georgia.  In 1916 local hides were bringing 9 or 10 dollars,, and in 1922, twice as much.  In the winter of 1920–21, however, prices had dropped temporarily, and comparatively little hunting seems to have been carried on.  In the season of 1916 three of the Lees had taken about 20 Otters by December 22.  It seems quite likely that the Otters in the Okefinokee still number several hundred individuals.

The Otter traps, armed with teeth, are placed on the so-called slides without bait.  Sometimes a slight hollow is chopped out of the top of a log, so that when the trap is placed there, it will not form a conspicuous projection.  The trap is lightly covreed with trash such as moss, earth, or leaves.

Trapping is by no means the only method of capture.  In 1916 David Lee had trained one of his hounds to hunt Otters, and with its help he secured far more specimens than by trapping.  The hound would sit in the bow of the little boat in which the hunter navigated the swamp, and on scenting the Otter, would jump overboard to pursue it in its natural element.  If the Otter had a clear run of deep water, it would outdistance and escape the dog.  If it had as much as 10 inches of water , it would elude the dog indefinitely, just sticking its nose above the surface, and not being seen by its pursuer.  If it took refuge in a tussock, the hunter would cut a stick and thrust down into the tussock with it.  If he succeeded thus in striking the Otter, it would clear out, giving him a chance to shoot it if not caught by the dog.  The latter would, if possible, seize it by the head, and in the ensuing struggle both animals might disappear for a time beneath the surface….

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