“There’s a dead otter on the beach!” called one of my boys after spotting a ball of thick brown fur. Some of my other kids and their cousins went to look, but I had no desire to join them.
They reported later that the otter didn’t smell bad. Figuring it must have washed up recently, I pushed away my revulsion and went to examine the animal. She was a female, much smaller than many otters we’ve seen swimming off the coast.
Examining her thick, beautiful fur, I considered the sea otter’s sad history. It will be forever entwined with our historical lack of concern for wildlife. Their uniquely dense fur coats meant her ancestors were ruthlessly hunted – to provide us with jackets and hats.
Other marine mammals have blubber for warmth, but not the sea otter. She might be the smallest of marine mammals but she has more hair than any other animal.
Animal kingdom hair-per-square-inch ranking:
Because the coats of some adult otters reach over 1 billion hairs per square inch, their fur was coveted for many generations. Most 19h-century fur wearers probably didn’t know of the creatures’ marvelous intelligence.
Like chimpanzees and crows, otters use tools to get to their food. According to Law, “When the sea otters return to the surface with their prey they will lie on their backs, place the food on their chests and break open the prey using a rock or bottle as a tool.”
Given that a sea otter consumes 25% of its body weight each day (25 pounds of sea urchins for a 100-pound animal) they have plenty of reasons to need their “tools.” It would take almost an entire week for my family of seven to eat that much!
Sea otters are a keystone species. Urchins feed on the Pacific Coasts’ giant kelp beds that provide shelter and food for dozens of other marine species. Without the otters to control the urchins, the entire kelp bed ecosystem would collapse.
The otters had been hunted to the brink of extinction by the early 20th century. Only about a dozen small remnant colonies remained. Then, in 1911, they were protected by the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention.
“Years later,” reports the National Marine Sanctuary,“conservationists moved some remaining otters from Big Sur to Central California. Gradually, their numbers grew, sea urchin numbers declined, and the kelp began to grow again. As the underwater forests grew, other species reappeared.”
Later, the otter was given protection under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
Those were hopeful first steps. Just last week, however Ketchikan’s SitNews detailed how the absence of sea otters has allowed purple urchins to devour the kelp forests of the Aleutian Islands’ coral reefs. The kelp and coral once served as cod nurseries.
It’s easy for us to judge the fur hunters of the past and ask how they could have been so blind to the devastation they were causing. And even easier, it seems, to ignore the impact today’s meat and dairy industries are having on the world’s endangered species.
It’s not merely feasible, but essential, that humanity learns to live in harmony with Nature by eating plant-based.
As I walked away from the dead otter, all these feelings and thoughts ran through my mind. I don’t know why she had to die. But I do know that I don’t want any animal to die unnecessarily.