It is a sad reality that human beings always seem to be inventing new ways to exploit, mistreat and profit from animals, but people can also help correct such harms and point the way to a better and more humane world. One of the most positive actions we can take is to educate ourselves and others about the threats facing animals. We’re hopeful that our recently released undercover video will encourage people to steer clear of patronizing businesses that hurt and exploit wild animals. The video captures a cruel and unsafe practice that is becoming increasingly popular at roadside zoos and other animal exhibits across the country: otter encounters.

Our undercover investigator captured the screams and struggles of a baby otter being restrained for a group of about 20 people to touch and photograph. His loud cries were heard from a back room long before he was presented to the customers, and although the woman holding the otter attempts to quiet him by covering his face with her hand, blowing in his face and bouncing him up and down, the infant remains distraught as he is carried among the crowd. The heartbreaking scene was captured on camera during a “VIP Encounter” at Tiger Safari, a roadside zoo in Tuttle, Oklahoma.

Otters are one of the latest “fad animals” used for public encounters. The popularity of these undeniably adorable animals is now resulting in people shelling out anywhere from $90 to $800 for the opportunity to hold, pet or jump into pools with them—but it’s the otters who are paying the greatest price.

A history of pain and suffering

As is the case with most wild animals used for public handling, otters are prematurely taken from their mothers and subjected to extreme stress by being forced to routinely interact with people.

Animal behavior and welfare consultant Jay Pratte and zoo curator Christie Eddie condemned the treatment of the otter used at Tiger Safari and stated: “The Asian small-clawed otter in the video is clearly exhibiting signs of significant distress, both in its vocalizations and behavior. The animal is visibly struggling against the handler and can be observed pulling away from and trying to evade members of the audience. … It is our expert opinion that otters should not be used in public contact encounters, and in this particular instance that the otter is enduring both acute and chronic physical and psychological distress, significantly impacting the animal’s health and welfare.”

Tiger Safari is just one of many facilities across the country cashing in on the public’s misguided demand for selfies and other close encounters with wild animals. A 9-week-old otter at the G&J Petting Zoo in Mississippi died after the stress of being used in at least 12 public encounters in one day. At SeaQuest in Nevada, one otter died after getting stuck in the cage’s filtration system; another died, apparently, from stress. These are just some stories on record. We fear there are more.

A distressed young otter screams and struggles continuously as he is forced to endure public handling during one of Tiger Safari Zoo's "VIP Encounters," which occur four times per day, seven days per week.
A distressed young otter screams and struggles continuously as he is forced to endure public handling during one of Tiger Safari Zoo's "VIP Encounters," which occur four times per day, seven days per week.

Any time a wild animal is trotted out for activities promoted as immersion exhibits, close encounters, interactive exhibits, ambassador animal experiences, meet-and-greets or simply opportunities to feed, pet, hold, play with, ride or swim with animals—well, alarm bells should go off. What these attractions all have in common is that the well-being of animals is secondary to the money that facilities can rake in from people eager for the opportunity to interact with them. Regulatory oversight of such encounters with wild animals is virtually non-existent. This is one reason we take steps to expose what’s happening. In response to our video and complaint, the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited Tiger Safari for causing trauma and stress to the otter as well as to a fennec fox who the inspector described as being “catatonic.” Sadly, the mishandling citation didn’t stop Tiger Safari from continuing to use the otter and fennec foxes for public handling, including recently parading them around a local nursing home, according to a post on the nursing home’s Facebook page.

Public handling is not the only suffering to which Tiger Safari’s otter is subjected. Asian small-clawed otters are energetic, semi-aquatic and exceptionally social animals. When kept in captivity, they should be provided with an enclosure that has an ample amount of water for swimming as well as access to the outdoors and substrates that include grass, mulch, sand, clay, soil, rocks, boulders, pebbles, leaves and bark to facilitate natural behaviors such as digging, grooming and sunbathing. Especially critical to their well-being is the companionship of other otters, the lack of which, Pratte and Eddie note, “will result in both acute and chronic psychological distress.”

Yet the otter at Tiger Safari is all alone, and the facility does not have an exhibit for otters. When he isn’t being forced to interact with the public, the otter appears to be housed in a back room. (This was also true of the abused tiger cubs who were the subject of our previous undercover investigation at Tiger Safari.) Denied absolutely everything that is natural to him, this young otter’s days are surely miserable from beginning to end.

Stressed otters are lashing out at exhibits across the country

Otters are carnivores with powerful jaws designed for cracking open mussels, crabs and snails. It is not required that facilities report otter bites to the USDA, but the evidence is nonetheless clear that stressed and unhappy otters often react by biting. These are just some of the incidents on record:

  • In June 2021, three middle school-aged children were bitten by otters while interacting and swimming with the animals at Barn Hill Preserve in Ethel, Louisiana.
  • In July 2020, a small child was bitten by an otter during a public feeding at SeaQuest in Trumbull, Connecticut.
  • In September 2019, an otter bit two people during a public handling event at Debbie Dolittle’s Indoor Petting Zoo in Tacoma, Washington. According to a zoo staffer, the otter was a frequent biter.
  • Between February and June 2019, four visitors were bitten during public interactions with an Asian small-clawed otter at SeaQuest in Fort Worth, Texas.

A public health risk

It is especially astounding that otter encounters are being offered up for entertainment when the mustelid family of mammals, which includes otters, ferrets and mink, has been documented as being susceptible to COVID-19. In fact, four Asian small-clawed otters at the Georgia Aquarium tested positive for COVID-19 in April 2021. COVID-19 has infected mink in fur farms in nine countries, including the U.S., and an article in The Atlantic warned that as COVID-19 “spreads among mink, and between minks and humans, and between humans and humans, it can mutate; it already has.”

In recognition of this risk, the USDA recommends that roadside zoos and other licensees protect COVID-19 susceptible animals by, among other things, asking people to wear masks and “suspending hands-on encounters with any of the SARS-CoV-2-susceptible animals.” Yet Tiger Safari and numerous other facilities continue to use otters—as well as other at-risk species—for public handling. At Tiger Safari’s VIP Encounter, not only were masks not required for attendees, but Tiger Safari actively discouraged people from wearing masks.

What you can do

Encounters that allow the public to pet, play with or swim with otters are never enjoyable for the animals, nor are they safe for animals or people. You can help relegate these practices to the past by never buying a ticket to a facility that allows such interactions with wild animals, and you can encourage your friends and family to do the same. You can also speak up for animals by writing to your local paper and to the facilities that offer these types of experiences, urging them to change their practices. Those who care about animals like these otters will refuse to support facilities that exploit them.

Follow Kitty Block on Twitter @HSUSKittyBlock.