The Museum of Discovery and Science is a true haven for family entertainment, offering a variety of activities, programs and events. What some may not know is that the Museum is also home to many animals. The newest residents are four North American river otters. These amazing creatures live in the museum’s lush Otters at Play outdoor exhibit where they can swim and dive in a six-foot-deep pool, play in the grass of a river bank, take a snooze in a hollow log, and frolic in a waterfall. Visitors can view the otters and watch their playful antics through a two-story-high window. The Otters at Play exhibit is part of the museum’s EcoDiscovery Center, which opened in November 2011.
The North American river otters serve as ambassadors for all of Florida’s large mammals. You may wonder why Florida’s mammals need ambassadors. Unfortunately, Florida’s mammals are in grave danger, specifically our large mammals. Many perish from easily preventable causes, such as pollution and being hit by cars. Although these deaths are common with small mammals as well, they breed more frequently and bear more offspring so the effects are less immense on their population. Large mammals, such as the Florida panther, have smaller litters only every few years, making their population’s rebound from careless accidents and pollution much more difficult. The museum’s otter ambassadors demonstrate the diverse presence of Florida’s large mammals in need of protection and preservation.
While otters swim and play together in the exhibit, they present visitors with the reality that large mammals like bears, deer, panthers, and otters that live in our backyard need us to help protect them. New this summer is the Otter Talks program that gives visitors the opportunity to meet the otter keepers and learn more about North American river otters. Guests can ask questions about the preservation of mammals, learn more about our otter’s lighthearted nature, and hear about the special care they receive at the museum during our daily Otter Talks. Otter Talks are offered daily at 2:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m.
Our resident otters --- Joey, Marlin, Linus, and Jafar --- receive loving care from otter keeper, Staci Stafford, and aquarist, Laura Eldredge. Each day the otters and their caretakers have a specific regime. First thing in the morning, the otters are provided with a medley of Herring, Smelt, and Capelin fish. Over the course of the day, each otter eats about two pound of “sushi”delights. The keepers are very meticulous about preparing a nutritious diet, which is crucial to the health of the otters. After gobbling up their aquatic meal, otters are released into the Otters at Play Exhibit where they play and nap in front of museum visitors.
As the otters play, Stafford and Eldredge work behind the scenes. Scrubbing down the otter containments, a daily duty, ensures the cleanliness and comfort of the otters’ life at the museum. All four of our otters were rescued from a flawed living situation and brought to our EcoDiscovery Center to live like princes. Joey, an orphaned otter, came to the museum without the necessary skills to swim. Otters, unlike other animals, do not swim instinctually. They are taught to swim by their mothers. Because Joey was orphaned at a very early age he never learned to swim – he had to be taught by museum staff. Slowly introducing Joey to swimming, he first ventured into puddles, then the exhibit’s river, and after several weeks of coaching he finally swam freely in deep water with his fellow otters.
In addition to teaching Joey to swim, the keepers also train the otters with additional skills. Behind the scenes training usually takes place once Stafford and Eldredge have completed cleaning the otters’ indoor homes. Otters are beckoned inside by the use of a tonal whistle, and they return to their indoor enclosures through implementation of target training methods. Targeting training teaches the otters to perform a specific behavior when provided with a visual aid, or target.
After working on these training tactics and participating in behind-the-scenes play time, Stafford and Eldredge dive into the exhibit to clean the tank and make sure all is well in the otters’ habitat. Following the dive, otters can return to their exhibit until 5:00 p.m. When this time arrives, the otters go back inside to insure their safety throughout the night.
Once inside, the otters, again, enjoy meal time. Otters are crepuscular animals, so they are most active at dusk and dawn, meaning they both play and sleep while behind the scenes. During this time, Linus is often seen toting a towel around his enclosure. Much like Linus, the blanket clad boy of the comic Peanuts, “Linus the Otter” takes pleasure in the comfort of a soft towel. When he first arrived to the museum, he was named Booboo. Stafford explains, “We thought his name was pretty cheesy, and Linus was suitable since he loves towels so much.”
Prior to working with otters, both Stafford and Eldredge worked at various facilities with whales, dolphins, manatees, sea lions, and a variety of other animals. They both enjoy working with our North American river otters because of the challenge. Stafford explains, “Training the otters can be a challenge because of their short attention span,” but both caregivers welcome the task. North American river otters were virtually eliminated from the Midwest, and few people realize they are native to our continent – as well as right here in South Florida. Find out information about these sparsely known creatures, and join us for our Otter Talks at 2:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. daily. The whole family is sure to enjoy the Museum’s North American River Otters at Play exhibit!
Anyone can support the otter ambassadors by making a donation of $10 by texting the word OTTER to 20222. You will need to confirm your donation by replying with the word YES. Messaging and data rates may apply.