Rambunctious River Otters informative talk inspires interest in nature

Stanley Park Ecology Society talks are a fun and accessible way to learn about local wildlife

River otters, like many other critters, face challenges brought on by urbanization. Photo: David Groves / Unsplash

By: Kelly Chia, Peak Associate

On August 31, the Stanley Park Ecology Society (SPES) hosted an educational program all about river otters. The SPES is a nonprofit organization in Stanley Park that partners with the Vancouver Park Board to provide educational programs like these. Like many, I was enchanted by these cute creatures that enjoyed holding paws, and was very excited to learn more about them. 

One of the event hosts and education manager, Erin Leckie, mused that while there were often people that she recognized in the audience, the benefit of being able to host these events online was that it attracted a lot of new people. She invited us all to turn on our cameras and do a brief wave, and as much as I’m averse to actually being seen on Zoom, I found it pretty endearing.

The other event host, Megan Manes, was the public environmental educator for SPES and the lecturer for this webinar. Leckie and Manes first gave their land acknowledgement to the Coast Salish peoples. They also mentioned their collaboration with Indigenous educators, such as Senaqwila Wyss, in hosting workshops like traditional medicine-making, and basket weaving. Most land acknowledgments I hear these days tend to sound rote, so I appreciated hearing that SPES was doing more than just acknowledging the land.  

The workshop began with a poll asking whether we thought river otters were most closely related to beavers, wolverines, dolphins, or dogs. I was surprised to learn that the answer was wolverines. Most people answered that they were closer to beavers, but as we found out, there were some key differences between the two water-dwelling creatures: beavers are purely herbivores, while otters are purely carnivores. Beavers are also closely related to rodents, which made sense considering their buck teeth definitely resemble those of a rat.

I learned that river otters move really quickly on land when they slide, though they are excellent swimmers that can close their ears and nose to keep water out when they dive. River otters often use dams or lodges, living in areas with beavers. Manes explained that they often rely on other animals to build their dams, sometimes even sharing their dams with beavers. I found this imagery very amusing  — imagine working so hard on your home to have these little guys decide it’s their home, too! 

Manes emphasized that while there were many things they knew about river otters, there were also things researchers weren’t certain about. Researchers think that river otters breed between December and April, but aren’t sure exactly when. I was also surprised to find out that researchers don’t think river otters mate for life. In principle, this makes sense as many animals don’t mate for life, but a part of me definitely envisioned them as romantics. 

Additionally, the river otters at Stanley Park also have some interesting adaptations. While river otters are known to be nocturnal, Manes said that they’ve been seen in Stanley Park puttering around all day. They’ve also learned to use the drainage parks under the Seawall to move between the interior and water. 

Because they’ve had to adapt to the urban environment, Manes pointed out that river otters are especially sensitive to pollution. Manes outlined three things we could do to help them out: using the app iNaturalist to upload sightings, as it helps you identify animals as well as collect data for scientists, reducing pesticide use, which would otherwise leak into the water system, and helping clean local bodies of water. Pre-pandemic, this last option would have been feasible, however, my understanding was that it was better to leave this to the professionals rather than citizen volunteers for the duration of the pandemic.

The program, then, felt like a small call to action. I have to admit that I went to this event thinking about otters in the context of entertainment — I’ve almost exclusively seen and learned about them in cute video compilations or fictional films. It is easy for me to forget that these are real animals wandering around in our local ecosystem, not just animals I fawn over from the distance of a phone screen. Because of this, I really appreciate that the SPES hosts programs like this where we are able to educate ourselves more on local wildlife to better understand how they really are directly impacted by our actions. 

Educating ourselves about the wildlife we share our city with helps us protect and care for our world more, and that’s pretty lovely. SPES is hosting more events like these in September, with tickets being offered on a sliding scale from $10 to $20. If you’d like to learn more about beavers, reptiles, or other wildlife local to Stanley Park, I’d highly recommend following them on Facebook to learn more about upcoming events.