ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — To see an otter swimming in a river in New Mexico would be one of nature’s most wondrous gifts.
If by chance it happened to me, I would hang up my walking shoes and present myself at the Pearly Gates – a life fulfilled.
For thousands of years, the fat, furried swimmers fished in waters from the northern Rio Grande to the Gila River and frolicked along river banks.
Then, due to threats to their natural environment from mining, logging and grazing and decades of intense fur trapping, they disappeared from New Mexico.
The last evidence of a river otter here came in 1953 when a dead one was retrieved from a beaver trap set in the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico.
Then, in 2008, on an autumn day, five otters were released on Taos Pueblo into the waters of the Rio del Pueblo de Taos, a Rio Grande tributary. More releases followed – 30 otters in all – and the native fishers were back.
Still, there aren’t many in relation to hundreds of miles of waterways, and so the chances of seeing an otter waddling along a riverbank or fishing in a New Mexico river’s flow are exceedingly slim.
But the chances of seeing a whole passel of river otters romping and diving and wagging their whiskers to an adorable degree at Albuquerque’s BioPark got much, much, much better last week when the good commissioners of Bernalillo County struck a blow for cute and approved a measure to add $2 million onto the county’s bonding capacity.
The bond question will go before voters this fall and, if it’s approved, the $2 million will go to the Albuquerque BioPark to create a river otter exhibit at the aquarium. The New Mexico BioPark Society will have to raise the remaining $500,000 needed.
Is $2.5 million a lot of money to spend on otters? Should we be spending that money on roads and sewers and other less adorable necessities? Are otters a luxury we can’t afford?
Commission Chairwoman Debbie O’Malley sponsored the measure, which won’t result in a tax increase. Yes, she told me, she’s a fan of otters. But she also thinks adding otters to the zoo is good for the economy.
“I looked at the cost of this project and the revenue it generates,” O’Malley told me. “It looked like one of those small projects that will bring a lot of kids and families to the zoo and generate ticket income and gross receipts.”
A study concluded that otters would entice on average an additional 184,000 people to the zoo each year, which provides a pretty good answer to the question of whether otters are worth it.
Otters are members of the weasel family. They are sleek. They are social and playful. Like sea otters, they are whiskered and as cute as stuffed animals, although if you scooped one up and held it in your lap, it would probably bite your face off with its knife-like little teeth.
But mostly they are natural clowns, and that brings in the crowds at a zoo.
Rick Janser, the BioPark’s director, said he watched people at the otter exhibit at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and what he saw sold him on an otter exhibit being a big hit. “People would stay there for an hour. They were laughing,” he said. The otters – Asian small-clawed otters – were wrestling and diving and playing and putting on an entertaining show.
If the money all gets raised, Janser said, he’ll probably start off with a family of six or so otters, a mom and her pups. The exhibit would be constructed indoors and outdoors at the aquarium, Janser said, and would include pools and slides and waterfalls with foliage and logs to mimic the animals’ natural river environment.
Intrepid otter fans could get a taste of the charismatic weasels inside the aquarium, then walk a few hundred yards over to the Rio Grande and hope to hit the jackpot – seeing an otter back where otters belong.