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New at the Zoo: North American River Otter Pups

  • North American River Otter Pups Coquille (female), Potomac (male) and Nash (male).

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo is otterly delighted to introduce Coquille, Potomac and Nash — American Trail’s adorable North American river otter pups! Born to 3-year-old parents Ashkii and Emmett, their arrival Jan. 21 marked the first births of their species in the Zoo’s 130-year history. Get the latest news in this PUPdate with assistant curator Rebecca Sturniolo.

What are your favorite facts about North American river otters?

Like their cousins, the sea otters, North American river otters have very thick and dense fur which help keeps them warm in cold temperatures. They also have oil glands in their skin that coats their fur and keeps them waterproofed! Another fun fact is that their tails make up to 40 percent of their entire body length.

Last, but not least, North American river otters are considered a keystone species, which means other species in the same habitat largely depend on the existence of river otters. They are a top predator and their presence also reflects the health of the ecosystem around them. Find river otters, and you will find healthy streams and rivers.

What are mom and dad’s personalities like? 

Ashkii is a very laidback otter. She is very comfortable around her keepers, and this has proven helpful now that she has pups. She is very cooperative when we need to access the pups for weigh-ins and health checks. She’ll calmly shift to a different stall and eat while watching us handle her pups.

Emmett, on the other hand, is a bit of a wild card and much more high strung. He’s almost the total opposite of Ashkii. He tends to be very high energy, has a hard time focusing when something else is grabbing his attention, and he is a loud and noisy otter.

What are the pups’ names?

The female is named Coquille (pronounced “co-KEEL”) after the Coquille River in southwestern Oregon. The first male is named Potomac after the Potomac River, which forms the border between Maryland and Washington, D.C. The second male is named Nash for the Nash River in New Hampshire.

Do the pups’ personalities mirror their parents’?

It is difficult to tell what parents the pups seem to be acting like the most. They have just started becoming more adventurous and are spending more time out of the den. Only time will tell what their personalities will be like as adults!   

How much do the pups weigh?

Coquille weighs 1.8 kilograms (4 pounds), Potomac weighs 2.3 kilograms (5 pounds) and Nash weighs 2.6 kilograms (6 pounds). All three weighed about 130 grams the day they were born, so they have all grown immensely over the past 2 1/2 months! 

What do you enjoy most about working with river otters? 

Our river otters are very active and playful, and watching them display their natural behaviors is one of the best aspects of working with them. They are also incredibly intelligent.

They are highly food-motivated, which makes them fun to train. This can be challenging, though, because they tend to have short attention spans. We use positive reinforcement as part of our husbandry training program. The animals have the choice of whether they want to participate (or not). If they choose to participate and do the correct behavior asked of them, we reward them with a favorite treat.

Ashkii and Emmett know how to do many behaviors on cue — get onto a scale, into a crate, open their mouths for mouth checks, spin in either direction and present body parts for examinations. They are currently learning how to sit still for voluntary injections and blood draws.

They are also very fun to enrich. They interact with almost every piece of enrichment that we give them, so finding new toys, puzzle feeders and husbandry behaviors to train is very rewarding.

What is most challenging about working with them?

Although otters look cute and cuddly, they have a nasty bite. Their quick movements and unpredictable behavior also makes them a dangerous animal to work around. In fact, they are the only animal that we do not share the same space with on American Trail. The adults are managed in protected contact, meaning there is always a physical barrier between the keepers and the otters.

Do keepers play any role in raising the pups?

Thankfully, Ashkii has proven to be a wonderful and competent first-time mother, and we are nearly completely hands off when it comes to raising them. The only interaction we have with the pups aside from daily observations are twice-weekly weigh-ins so that we can ensure the pups are nursing and gaining the appropriate weight.

The benefits of being hands off are that they are forming really tight bonds with each other and with Ashkii. This will be important when it comes time for them to wean, learn to swim and when they are given access to the exhibit for the first time. They will rely on Ashkii to keep them safe and help them learn. 

When will the pups wean?

In general, North American river otter pups nurse for about three to four months, but they may start exploring solid foods as early as two months. Ashkii has already started saving some of her diet in small piles, which we believe are for the pups to explore. 

Otters hunt for live fish at the American Trail exhibit. 

What do the adult river otters eat?

At the Zoo, our river otters have a highly varied diet. Ground beef makes up the majority of the diet, but they also receive three different types of fish (herring, capelin, smelt), different types of kibble, hardboiled eggs, mice, vegetables, clams, crayfish and live fish.

We use a portion of their diet for training, and they voluntarily participate in up to four training sessions per day. The rest of the food is scattered around the exhibit to encourage hunting and searching activity, and is also placed into enrichment items to encourage natural foraging behaviors. 

What are the next big milestones for the otter pups? 

The next big milestone for the pups is learning how to swim! Once we saw Ashkii trying to push the pups into her water bowl, we knew it was time to offer them a shallow pool.

The first time a pool was offered, Ashkii immediately went to work getting all of the pups into the pool and nosing them around. She would swim to each of them and nose them to make sure they were OK.

When she thought they had enough, she pulled them out of the pool and put them back into the den; but that didn’t keep them from leaving the den and climbing back into the pool on their own! As the pups get more comfortable in the water, we’ll increase the size and depth of the pool. 

When will the pups make their debut?

I know many Zoo fans are patiently waiting to meet the otter pups and, if all goes according to plan, they will make their debut in a month or two. It will depend on our confidence in their ability to navigate the yard safely by themselves. The biggest determining factor will be how well they are walking around on their own and how easily they are able to get in and out of their training pools.

Once we see that happening on a frequent basis without the assistance of mom, they will be ready to explore the outdoor habitat. In the meantime, stop by and visit their dad, Emmett, on American Trail!

This story appears in the April 2019 issue of National Zoo News.