The face peering at her was hairy and disapproving. Two small, baleful eyes set wide in a large furry head round as a ball. Ridiculous button ears. A broad black nose above stiff whiskers. The mouth curled down at the corners left no doubt she was intruding. And the face was sodden with sea water, compounding the impression of irritation.
Leaving was not a bad idea. What Liz had bumped into was pretty intimidating close up, however amicable it may have seemed from a distance.
It was a Cape clawless otter. They are all over Southern Africa except in the arid regions, and a sizeable number are right here in the surrounds of the city of Cape Town – a good many of them often in our backyard.
Liz was clambering round the rocks and came around a truck-size boulder to find herself almost face to face with this large male just emerged from the sea, judging by his dripping state. A big fellow well over a metre long, a third of that his flat-bottomed tail which helps propel him through the water.
She chose caution and retreated as he unhurriedly disappeared among the boulders. Caution because an angry otter, or one which feels trapped, can be dangerous. They are powerful and equipped with canine teeth like those of a large dog. It is said that once they get a grip they will not let go.
One of our sons was outdoors one afternoon when he saw an extraordinary scene. In the shallow surf two large otters were apparently trying to drown a smaller one. A large otter forcefully held the small one underwater for some time then released it. It came up spluttering and had hardly drawn a breath when the other big otter forced it back under again.
At first he thought they were simply playing but after a while the small otter began to look feeble and desperate. So he walked across the rocks to stop the torture by chasing them off. When he came close, a couple of metres from them, they paused in their labours and looked directly at him, unafraid and, he felt, challenging him: “You want to interfere? Come on then.”
They were much larger than he realised and powerful. Taking on even one would be risky, tackling two would be stupid. He retreated to the lawn. From there he threw stones at them until they stopped punishing the young one and swam away. The victim vanished into the boulders. It was probably an inadvertent intruder from another group.
Otters are among the favourite subjects of wildlife lovers because they are such handsome creatures, streamlined strength with amazing agility in the water though not quite as acrobatic on land. They have these round blunt faces like a jovial innkeeper’s, they radiate intelligence and they are inquisitive.
When eating their prey, usually a crab or fish, they hold it in both hands (I use “hands” because they use them much as we do). They sometimes eat in the water but we have not seen them floating on their backs using their bellies as a table as otters do in some other continents. Here they usually eat on land.
They first come to our freshwater well to rinse their food. We saw an otter at the well dipping something into it and shaking it about in the fresh water, then withdrawing and eating it. We could not identify its meal but later found on the grass beside the well a discarded fish skin which had been peeled off the fish in one piece where. The gulls soon found it.
After the meal they diligently wash their hands in the well. They take only what they need. They threaten nothing and nobody . . . except other otters.
Much of the appeal in their nature is that they love playing, in water or on land, and when not feeding or sleeping or sunbathing they spend hours just rolling around in wrestling matches and mock fights or tossing and fetching sticks and stones. They are very affectionate towards each other – within their family groups but definitely not towards outsiders – and when drying out will lie on sand patches in our little wilderness resting on each other, a chin on a stomach turned up to catch the sun’s warmth, a head on a shoulder, one lying right across another.
They make very affectionate pets too but not without drawbacks – one in particular as a Natal farming family learned.
They raised a pair of baby otters abandoned by their mother, or more likely killed by a hunter for her prized pelt. They had to bottle-feed them, so small were the babies, and the pair grew up understandably thinking they were part of the family and made themselves thoroughly at home.
The family realised they had a problem the first time they took them down to the small stream at the bottom of the garden, for swimming to an otter is almost as important as breathing.
The youngsters went crazy with delight, in and out of the water, splashing everything, cavorting on the grassy banks until they were exhausted. When their surrogate parents walked back to the house the youngsters vigorously shook water out of their dense coats and followed in their curious rocking-horse gait.
At the house the pair went straight to the comfortable sofa covered in floral fabric and rolled and rubbed their bodies all over it to get the last of the water out. This happened to be rather more than they had shaken off down at the stream. And when the sofa became too sodden they moved to the armchairs.
Their “parents” had to make special arrangements for the protection of their soft furnishings.
To be continued / – Friday 3 October.