Otter than fiction
Special to the Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Forget marauding bears. Watch out for vicious river otters.
That’s what Glenwood Springs nurse Nancy Schurr, 56, discovered when a river otter attacked her on Aug. 21 during a float trip on the Colorado River west of Grand Junction.
Mike Porras, public information officer for the northwest region of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said Schurr’s incident is the first he’s heard of an otter attacking a human.
“Otters are reclusive and shy around people, and they’re generally not aggressive,” Porras said. “But they are predators, and wild animals are unpredictable.
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“I can only speculate that it was probably a younger animal. Maybe it was diseased or defending its territory. Perhaps it felt threatened. Still, it’s abnormal behavior.”
Porras said the agency plans to conduct a full investigation into the attack.
It all started altruistically. Schurr and Mary Bowling, also from Glenwood Springs, were on a weekend river trip through Ruby-Horsethief canyons. The 20-mile stretch, from the Loma Boat Launch to the Westwater Ranger Station, is popular with regional river runners.
After making camp in an area called Black Rocks, the two saw and heard a stranded dog perched on a large rock on an island in the middle of the river.
“He was crying,” Schurr said, “He sounded so pitiful. He was wearing a life jacket, so we knew he belonged to someone on the river.”
After listening to the dog’s cries for nearly a half-hour, the two women decided to rescue the animal by rowing their two catarafts to the island. Bowling went one way around the island, and Schurr the other, trying to access the pooch.
“I never would have gone there, except we were trying to reach the dog,” Schurr said.
After 10 minutes or so, Schurr tied her boat to a large rock. She eased into the water, which was about six feet deep, to swim to an accessible spot on the island. Just then, Schurr saw Bowling in her boat coming around the island, giving the thumbs up, with the rescued dog on board. Mission accomplished.
But now, floating in her life vest near her cataraft, Schurr was about to confront an entirely different animal.
“I saw bubbles in the water, and heard a growling noise I didn’t recognize,” Schurr said.
Treading water, Schurr couldn’t see what was making the strange noise, but suddenly, she could feel it.
“I touched something soft with my foot and it wasn’t the river bottom,” she said.
Seconds later came the river otter’s first of many rapid-fire bites to her back, legs and arms.
River otters are native to Colorado, and are aquatic members of the weasel family. Once abundant, the population began a continual decline starting as early as the 1800s because of fur trappers, who coveted their valuable pelts. By 1975, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, river otters’ numbers got so low they were classified as a state endangered species.
Since then, through targeted reintroduction efforts, the state’s otter population has steadily increased. A Bureau of Land Management brochure about Ruby-Horsethief canyons even mentions that visitors “might see some rare river otters.”
But back at Black Rocks, Schurr’s otter sighting was far too close.
“I heard a bloodcurdling scream,” said Bowling, who was rowing back to the campsite with the rescued dog when she heard Schurr’s cries. Bowling immediately turned her boat around to see what was wrong, as the otter attacked Schurr.
“I just kept thinking, ‘Please don’t bite me again,” said Schurr.
The otter wasn’t listening. It swam away and circled back, biting Schurr’s back, arms and legs. She finally got a hold of the animal, and with both of her hands under its front legs, pulled it partially up out of the water.
“I thought, ‘It’s a seal!'” she said upon seeing the otter face to face. “It was dark and sleek and about the size of cat. At the same time I was thinking, ‘He’s so cute.’ I could see his little whiskers. But I was also trying to grab him around the neck, thinking he needed to die before he attacked me again.”
Schurr managed to crawl partially out of the water. By this time, Bowling was on scene, and helped the injured woman get completely out of the river.
“There was blood everywhere,” Bowling said, but the otter had escaped.
After the two women rowed their boats back to their campsite, they used a Sun Shower to clean the bites as well as they could, and applied dressings to the wounds. Schurr, worried about infection, felt sick to her stomach but was otherwise OK.
Once off the river the next day, Schurr and Bowling made a beeline for Valley View Hospital’s emergency room. Schurr’s wounds were treated. She received 13 stitches in her arm, and started her first series of rabies shots, since it’s unknown if the otter had the virus.
Porras said any time people have a conflict with a wild animal, it’s important to report it to Colorado Parks and Wildlife as soon as possible. That way, the agency can monitor the animal and the area where the incident occurred.
And for Schurr, she is already planning her next river trip, but she does have a suggestion.
“Make sure your first aid kit is well stocked, especially with antibiotic cream,” she said. “And if you see bubbles in the water, swim in the opposite direction.”
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