Tilly's 'tough love' wins out: otter is named Zoo Mom of Year

Tilly outpaces Asian elephant Rose-Tu and De Brazza's monkey Brooke for top honors

Talk about your political animals...

The race to determine the Oregon Zoo's 2013 Mother of the Year grew heated at times but was thoroughly engaging, as keepers rallied behind their favorite animals and voters participated in record numbers. In the end, Tilly the river otter came out ahead with 47 percent of the vote, outpacing Asian elephant Rose-Tu (38 percent) and DeBrazza's monkey Brooke (15 percent).

"We had a lot of fun campaigning this year," said Julie Christie, the zoo's senior North America keeper and one of Tilly's biggest fans. "There were some friendly rivalries, and a bit of trash talk between the keepers — I may have been guilty of some of that! But really all three animals are wonderful moms. Each of them has been an inspiration to zoo visitors and keepers alike."

The zoo's annual contest earned national attention this year, with a featured post on TODAY.com's Cutest Thing Ever blog and updates shared on the Facebook pages of zoos across the country. It also drew the highest participation in recent memory with more than 3,200 votes cast among the three candidates.

"Young river otters are very dependent on their moms, and Tilly has been super nurturing," Christie said. "She's also shown a bit of 'tough love,' which I'm sure a lot of moms can appreciate. I think that video of her teaching Mo to swim helped people see what a great mom she really is."

Mo (short for Molalla) is the first river otter to be born at the Oregon Zoo. He arrived Jan. 28 and is named after the Molalla River.

Since both Tilly and the pup's father, B.C., were born in the wild, they are considered genetically important for the breeding otter population in North American zoos. Both parents are rescue animals who had a rough start to life.

Tilly was found orphaned near Johnson Creek in 2009. She was about 4 months old, had been wounded by an animal attack and was seriously malnourished. Once her health had stabilized, Tilly came to the Oregon Zoo in a transfer facilitated by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which oversees the species' protection.

The pup's father, B.C., was found orphaned near Star City, Ark., also in 2009. He was initially taken in by the Little Rock Zoo, but transferred here the following year as a companion for Tilly. The two otters hit it off quickly and have been playful visitor favorites ever since. (B.C. arrived at the Oregon Zoo with the name Buttercup; when he was little, keepers thought he was female.)

Now that the threat from fur trappers has declined, North American river otters are once again relatively abundant in healthy river systems of the Pacific Northwest and the lakes and tributaries that feed them. Good populations exist in suitable habitat in northeast and southeast Oregon, but they are scarce in heavily settled areas, especially if waterways are compromised. Because of habitat destruction and water pollution, river otters are considered rare outside the Pacific Northwest.

Metro, the regional government that manages the Oregon Zoo, has preserved and restored more than 90 miles of river and stream banks in the region through its voter-supported natural area programs. By protecting water quality and habitat, these programs are helping to provide the healthy ecosystems needed for otters, fish and other wildlife to thrive. River otters are frequently observed in Metro region waterways.