I Don’t Care About Otters Anymore

I’m done.

I give up. You win, otters.

I can’t keep living this life anymore. Therefore, I am officially announcing to the world that I no longer care about otters. A dozen river otters could be dancing the can-can outside my front window and I wouldn’t even get out of my chair to open the curtain. I am perfectly at ease with the (apparent) fact that I will live out my remaining life without seeing a river otter on the Platte River, despite spending my entire professional career working in an area known to have the highest concentration of otters in the state of Nebraska.

I fully acknowledge that I will never photograph an otter, along the Platte River or anywhere else, and that doesn’t bother me a bit. It’s not going to happen. Not only do I accept that, I welcome it. After all, there’s no shortage of flowers, insects, spiders, and other charming organisms for me to photograph. I don’t need images of scruffy, long-tailed fish-gobblers in my photo collection to feel good about myself.

Otter tracks through the middle of the frozen wetland I visit frequently.

This official pronouncement is being made here and now because I need to get out from under the harassment I’ve been suffering since I first posted here about river otters about ten years ago. In that post, I very casually mentioned that it might be nice to see an otter sometime.

Ok, I might have called them ‘little dirtbags’, but it was all in jest. I was just a little peeved that so many other people saw otters along the Platte, even though they spent much less time there than I did. It was also somewhat irksome that, for two years, we housed a technician at our field site while he trapped and put radio transmitters on otters. He caught them on our property and nearby properties and periodically came back with videos of otters he just ran across while out doing other things. I went out with him to check traps. Did I see any otters? No. I saw him catch a beaver and a raccoon. Thrilling.

Anyway, none of it was supposed to be a big deal. It was just an odd, random, and therefore slightly humorous anecdote. Hey, guess what? I spend a tremendous amount of time where otters hang out, but I’ve never actually seen one. Hardy har har.

But you people made it a big deal. All of a sudden, I was the ‘has-never-seen-an-otter-guy’ wherever I went. When I’d meet someone, they’d introduce themselves by telling me their name and then immediately asking if I’d seen an otter yet. They’d do it with a big grin on their face like we were sharing some kind of inside joke. That’s not a joke. A joke has a set-up and a punchline. For example, I was going to tell you a joke about my experience with time travel but you didn’t like it. That’s a joke.

Besides, I don’t walk up to people, introduce myself, and then immediately ask, with a big smirk, if they’ve seen a camouflaged looper. Everyone knows camouflaged loopers are a thousand times more cool than river otters so mocking someone for not seeing one would be mean. After all, can river otters camouflage themselves with bits of the flowers they’re feeding on? Nope. They’re too busy chasing fish around underwater and couchsurfing in beaver lodges (rent free, by the way) as they travel up and downriver.

The noble camouflaged looper. Now there’s a creature worth photographing!

After a while, friends and family started sending me otter photos and memes. They sent me greeting cards with otters on them and gave me otter-themed presents. What am I supposed to do with a stuffed otter toy?? Sleep with it held tightly against my chest like a cuddly shield against the scary world? That’s juvenile. Besides, it starts to smell bad after a while.

I mean, what would anyone want with something like this?

And, of course, worst of all, people started telling me their stories of seeing river otters. “Oh, it was the cutest thing,” they’d say. “The otters spent about 15 minutes cavorting around right in front of us, as if they wanted to put on a show just to make us happy!” You know what would make me happy? Not hearing stories about other people seeing river otters.

Several years after my first otter post, Kim and I actually saw an otter on a frigid winter day along the Niobrara River, though I didn’t get a photo of it before it disappeared beneath the ice. For some reason, my photo of the hole in the ice didn’t seem to get people off my back. They referred to my ‘alleged sighting’ and called it ‘sad’ and ‘just a hole in the ice’. “And anyway,” they said, “it wasn’t a river otter on the Platte, which is the whole point of our good-natured ribbing.”

Good natured ribbing…

Here’s the hole in the ice an otter had popped through just before the photo. It’s apparently not sufficient evidence and also on the wrong river. Not that I care.

So I still haven’t seen a river otter along the Platte River. This year, for Christmas, my darling children gave me even more otter-themed gifts. It’s been TEN YEARS since that blog post. Ten years. I’ve accomplished things. I am a professional ecologist. People sometimes ask me to speak at events. I’m a known quantity in some (niche) circles. And yet, my own kids see me primarily as the guy who hasn’t seen an otter on the Platte River. As if anyone cares about that.

A selection of this year’s Christmas gifts from my children. And no, they don’t seem to care whether the otters are river otters or sea otters.

Well, I don’t care. Maybe I did once. I’ll admit there was a time in my life when otters danced in my dreams. There might have been a few occasions when I stood staring at the river from a crane viewing blind, saw a dark shape floating by, and tried to convince myself and others that a beaver or small log might have been something it wasn’t. I’m not proud of the person I was at those moments, but I am that person no more. I’m done.

And no, this isn’t some silly attempt to shift my karmic balance in the hope that otters will magically appear once I don’t care about them anymore. What a dumb and pitiful gesture that would be. I just don’t care about otters anymore. You hear that world? I DON’T CARE ABOUT OTTERS.

I’m not even going to make otter puns from now on. I will no longer look for opportunities to be amusing with words like ‘other’, ‘ought to’, or ‘utterly’ that kind of sound like ‘otter’ when used humorously in a sentence. Jokes like that are juvenile and not worth my time. Other puns, of course, are still hilarious, and I will stand by that, no matter what everyone else in my life seems to think. It’s only otter puns that are dumb.

Like otters.

See, I didn’t really mean that. That’s the kind of thing I would have said in the old days. When I was a different person. The new me doesn’t care about otters. I don’t know how much I can stress that fact.

Anyway, I don’t mean to make a thing out of this. I just wanted to casually alert everyone that I’m no longer obsessed with otters. Not that I was ever obsessed, exactly. Preoccupied, maybe? Definitely not haunted, plagued, or consumed. Otters were just something I used to think about now and then. But I don’t anymore. And I thought you should know that.

Thanks for listening.


By the way, some of you are going to read this and feel compelled to share your own story of seeing river otters in the comments section. Don’t. Spend your energy and time on something that matters. Instead of sharing an anecdote with me, send a nice letter to your grandmother or drop a note to your niece. They’ll appreciate it and you’ll both feel good.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

33 thoughts on “I Don’t Care About Otters Anymore

  1. I feel your pain. Outside one of the nature centers where I volunteer is a tiny pond that every other naturalist there tells me has a big snapping turtle. Lies! All lies! I’ve never seen this purported turtle. For several year now!

  2. This was a hysterically funny and wonderful email, Chris! Thanks so much – you made my day! (Notice – no otter jokes)

  3. Chris,
    I feel your pain. I work at a nature center in Tulsa Oklahoma that is home to river otters and do water testing on a beautiful Ozark stream in eastern Oklahoma, also home to river otters. Many friends tell me of sightings, some even show me their superb photos. I found a road kill last fall but have yet to see a live otter. Maybe I don’t want to see a river otter either.

  4. Chris, don’t give up on the otters. Bobcats were my River Otters. I had never seen one in the wild until last summer. Now I’ve had several sightings including one last week while on one of the Christmas Bird Counts I participate in. Otters are fascinating to watch. You’ll see one!

    • I don’t know what you mean… I’m confident that people will respect my change in attitude and no longer bring up otters to me in any social situations. And I’m sure otters won’t be affected one way or the other by the fact that I don’t care about them. : )

      • Well, they otter respect your wishes, but I feel like some of them, perhaps the more feisty ones, will not. 😈 Good luck!

  5. So it’s always about camouflaged loopers with you isn’t it Chris? And it never seems to bother you while writing about it that I might feel inadequate as a so-called professional biologist who’s spent 40 years in the profession and still probably couldn’t correctly identify an adult looper if it landed on my nose! But that’s now in the past. I’m officially done with wondering what moth is on my nose, should one ever there land.
    Btw, Keep on keeping on. You’re a hoot and informative, unwanted information about camouflaged loopers notwithstanding.

  6. Brilliantly funny blog post! Makes me feel better about all the animals I haven’t seen in my 25 years of experience in land protection. Michigan is one of the strongholds for the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake; have I ever come across one on all the natural lands that I’ve traversed over the years? Nope. It’s a unicorn that I keep searching for.

  7. I always rubbed it in because it is the ONE CRITTER that I have seen at PRP that you haven’t. You spend too much time looking down instead of around. :D Now you will see them everywhere.

  8. …(wiping tears from my eyes)…what a terrific post to start my morning with, thank you for helping me ease into a busy day with a laugh and a smile. I won’t go into what I (have and) have not seen at our preserves, but I will say that capturing their slide prints in the snow is “almost” as cool as seeing them in person. And that’s an awfully nice one you’ve got there (I mostly just find short slides heading into a creek). Thank you, Chris!

  9. I understand why you requested not sharing stories of seeing river otters. However, I feel a need to share a story from the distant past. (Sorry) As you know, river otters were on the verge of extinction in the early 1900s and were already gone in Nebraska. It wasn’t until 1977 that one was spotted again in Nebraska near the Republican River. But one was actually spotted earlier than that… by me! I wish now I had reported it. My family camped at Merritt Reservoir often after the dam was built in 1964. The trout fishing was fantastic back then in the lake, which hasn’t had any trout for a long time now. In 1968, when I was 13 years old, I took a hike from beneath the dam all the way to the Snake River Falls and back, which I didn’t realize was trespassing then, but I saw no other people. About halfway back I saw the river otter, just a few feet away from me. I had no camera back then, so I have no picture, but after watching it up close for several minutes, there is no question that is what it was. After studying ecology in college, I felt that building that reservoir and irrigation canal on one of the most unique rivers in Nebraska was a huge mistake. Thank goodness the same plan on the Niobrara River wasn’t successful, although there is the Box Butte Reservoir much further west. I sure wish the Nature Conservancy had been able to purchase land along the Snake River to preserve it before Merritt was built, like the Niobrara Valley Preserve.

      • Thank you, Chris. That is a memory that will be stuck in my head for the rest of my life. It felt good to share it. In addition to the otter, that hike was one of the best I have ever had in my life. The Snake River is outstanding! There was one other time that I hiked from the Snake River Falls all the way to the Niobrara River and back… trespassing again of course. I don’t regret it though.

  10. If you need some more deliciously sour grapes, I did just listen to a podcast episode featuring an otter researcher who readily described them as “pure evil.”

    So I don’t know if you’re missing much.

  11. You have a great sense of humor, Chris, and are a wonderful storyteller. In my heart of hearts, though, I know you’re trying to convince the cosmos that you’re still expecting one or more otters to make their acquaintance with you. Relax, it will happen….

  12. Chris, How serendipitous that I blundered across this while searching for information about a native plant in Nebraska. If you believe your lot with otters is tough, try getting booed by a class of 4th graders after telling them to get back on the bank while releasing otters to the Platte at Rowe Sanctuary! I didn’t cry, but I can’t vouch for Chuck McCullough who was helping me! Mr. Peterson’s story is very cool. Soon after the Republican record that he mentions, there was an old female captured in Lincoln County several miles away from any water …. but that is a different story. But I’ll leave you with this. As a big time otter lover I don’t know if I can continue funding Nebraska TNC work if their Director of Science won’t retract his obviously false statement that he doesn’t care about otters??? How much is it worth???

    Greg Wingfield

    • Greg, your support of my work is much appreciated. Over the last, um, nearly 9 hours since you subscribed to this 12-year-old blog, I’ve benefitted greatly from your advice and other means of support.

      Also, are you sure they were booing you? Maybe they were just booing the otters. Or booing the whole experience because they didn’t care about otters in the first place, which seems very reasonable to me.

      • Chris, I see I should have started with “long-time follower/first time subscriber and commenter”. And to clarify, I blundered upon the otter post, certainly not The Prairie Ecologist, which I’ve enjoyed off and on over its entire life. So that I don’t bore those following here, I’ll stand down on the otter wars for now … I sense you might be a hard nut to track now that you’ve gone public. You probably don’t even want an ottergraphed copy (OK, I’m weak and couldn’t resist) of the 1987 Nebraskaland story “Year of the Otter”? But I will challenge you to further debate sometime this spring or summer on your home turf — Gibbon, Wood River, or maybe at the Niobrara Preserve where I plan to visit old stomping grounds and celebrate one of TNC’s great new hires now based there. Lastly, great cover on the most recent issue of Nebraskaland! And I trust that when you first sight the magnificent river otter in Platte River environs, you will treat that sighting with the respect you gave the spadefoot. Cheers! Greg

  13. I feel the same about owls. People seem to be seeing them all over. I don’t have an eye for them. I spend a lot of time staring at tree bark imagining camouflaged owls, but they never matriculate. I have yet to graduate to the level of hoping for otters.


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