Second Chances: River otter Tilly

January 11, 2018 - 7:49am

Our ongoing Second Chances series looks at animals that faced life-threatening challenges but found help, hope or homes at the Oregon Zoo. Every day, thousands of animals are orphaned, injured or displaced. These are the stories of the ones who made it, told by the people who helped them.

River otter pups are born blind and helpless. They rely on their mom for food, warmth and safety, and they can't even swim without lessons. Without a mother, most otter pups wouldn't survive.

Tilly, a playful and energetic river otter now living at the Oregon Zoo, was an exception.

"Tilly was found as an orphan at about 2 months of age," said Renée Larison, a keeper in the zoo's Great Northwest area. "She was being attacked by a cat at an apartment complex in Johnson Creek. She was found alone, so we don't know if she had brothers and sisters or a mom. We don't know if the cat dragged her out of a nest."

Because of her injuries and young age, Tilly faced slim odds of surviving on her own in the wild, and in 2009, wildlife officials found a home for her at the zoo. Staff there would play the role of Tilly's mother.

"She at that time kind of needed to learn the ropes from someone, and we helped nurse her back to health," Larison said.

Starting in a kiddie pool, Tilly quickly grew stronger and gained confidence. In 2010, she was joined by a companion — another rescued otter, named B.C. (short for Buttercup).

"B.C. is Tilly's boyfriend, you could say," Larison said. "He came to us also as an orphan. They bonded and played and have become a great pair."

In 2013, Tilly faced another challenge: being a first-time mom.

"It's constant taking care of pups," Larison said. "She'll come out and take a dip and get some exercise, but 99 percent of the time she's in there curled up with those pups. They're nursing, she's grooming them, keeping them warm. There's no dad to help out — she's their prime caregiver."

Surprisingly, swimming does not come naturally to river otters — they need to be taught — but Tilly proved to be a skilled instructor.

"Otter pups don't learn to swim until they're about 2 months of age," Larison said. "Mom will grab them by the scruff of the neck and bring them in. It looks like she's trying to drown them. We've had visitors upset about that, but it's like, no, she's just teaching them. She's got to take them down to the bottom, and they have to learn how to dive for their food."

A video of Tilly's rough-and-tumble swim lessons with her young pup went viral that year, logging close to a million views on the zoo's YouTube channel.

Tilly has now raised four pups, and also helped care for another rescued orphan, Little Pudding, who was found wandering along Highway 58 near Oakridge, Ore., in 2015. He was taken to the Chintimini Wildlife Center in Corvallis, then brought to the zoo for additional care.

"My responsibility to Tilly is taking the best care of her and her family as I can," Larison added. "It's amazing to see a river otter like Tilly come to us without a mom at such a young age, and then to become a mother herself and be wonderful with her pups and raising a family."