Where you can see Smooth-Coated Otters

In the Wild

Since this species is the most common of the otters throughout most of its range, protected wetland areas are places where they might be seen, if you are very patient, quiet and lucky. In Singapore, a family of Smooth Otters moved into Sungei Buloh Nature Reserve, and there is an account of A Close Encounter with the Otters of Sungei Buloh in 2001. There are also Smooth Otters in Tamara Negara National Park. Corbett National Park in India contains many smooth otters.

In Captivity

Trained Smooth Otters.
Copyright Mandy Zomer, http://www.furopia.com In Britain, Molly Badham at Twyford Zoo was the first person to breed Smooth Otters in captivity ( Badham, 1973, but now only has Small-Clawed Otters. Mole Hall in Essex used to have a male Smooth Otter, as described in "Stinkerbelle: the Nark" by Myrna Loy, but he is long gone. Sivasothi (1998) reported Smooth Otters in Zoo Negara and Taiping Zoo, both in Malaysia. As yet, I have not had replies from those zoos to indicate whether they still have these otters, and their websites do not mention them. It is possible that there are no Smooth Otters currently in captivity in zoos or wildlife parks. Since they are noisy, extrovert and tolerant of humans, adapting well to zoo life, this is surprising.

Apart from zoo-type captivity, Smooth Otters are trained to help fishermen. The females are prized for this, and are kept on rope harnesses. When young otters are born, they naturally follow their mother (and presumably father), and learn what to do from copying their parents. This can be seen in the picture - two of the otters are harnessed using a fairly loose figure-of-eight harness (otters cannot really be collared as they are built in such a streamlined way that collars just pull off), but the other, smaller otters are loose. Presumably these are the young cubs in training. According to sources examined by Gudger (1927), otters have been trained to help fishermen since at least the Sixth Century. In many of these accounts it is unclear whether the Smooth Otter or the Small- Clawed Otter is meant. In a few anecdotes, however, it is clearly the Smooth Otter that is mentioned - it is described as "large and beautiful" (rather than "small and beautiful"!), and fishermen are described as keeping as many as twenty or thirty in the same village - it is unlikely that the Eurasian Otter would tolerate this. Bishop Heber, quoted in Gudger, describes these same "large and beautiful" otters being as tame as dogs, and J.L. Kipling, also in Gudger, describes them as "only employed in the back waters of Cochin, in part of Bengal and on the Indus River . . . They are effectively tamed in India, which is an easy matter . . . the otters tethered to stakes near [the fishermen's house-boats], playing with the no less amphibious children and behaving like the playful, intelligent water-cats they are".

Trained Otters in the Sundarbans Biswas (1973) saw trained Smooth Otters helping fishermen. A trained otter changes hands for a very high price. The otters started "barking" at 4am, which is when the fishermen set off, with the otters in the boats. The men set nets and the otters drive fish into the nets, which from Gudger's information seems the most common way to use them. Biswas also relates that the otters catch big fish, sometimes bigger than the otter, and present them to the fishermen. The otters eat small fish during the humt, and are also thrown fish as a reward. On being called, the otters climb back into the boats.

The SDNP website shows that this is still taking place today. There is also a short section in the documentary series "India: Land of the Tiger" showing both wild Smooth Otters (and Small-Clawed Otters), and trained ones fishing (these programmes show on UK TV on UK Horizonss sometimes).

The Smooth Otter is the best candidate for the famous, and possibly mythical New Zealand Otter, according to Harris, 1968, who doesn't really believe in it, but says it's a nice story! The theory is that shipwrecked fishermen from further north might have had their otters with them, and the animals escaped and multiplied in an environment with plentiful food in the fjords and no predators.

The most famous Smooth Otter is of course Mijbil, the beloved pet of Gavin Maxwell, and one of the two specimens of Lutrogale perspicillata maxwelli that this subspecies was described from (the other was a skin, also obtained by Maxwell).

Husbandry Issues

From Badham, 1973, Duplaix-Hall, 1972 and Yadav, 1967, the main husbandry issue for those lucky enough to have a breeding pair in their care is that they need to be able to dig burrows. Enough thickness of soft substrate should be provided to allow the female to excavate her natal holt, even if in the end she chooses to give birth elsewhere - the digging of this seems to be psychologically necessary. Wherever the otters give birth should be kept entirely free of human disturbance, or the mother will try to keep moving the pup, resulting in the pup being unable to suckle sufficiently and suffering inanition leading to either removal and hand-rearing or death. This species does not appear to have any inhibition against incest, unlike the Asian Small-Clawed Otter, and a daughter will mate her father if she successfully challenges her alpha female mother and takes her place (Badham).

Apart from this the usual otter husbandry issues apply. From Duplaix-Hall, the proportion of water to land should be 1:4 even for this species which is a very keen swimmer - it therefore follows that they need a large area of water and a proportionately large area of land. Concrete should not be used as it leads to fungal growth on the webs, which can rapidly spread and cause suffering. Adequate bedding and grooming material should be provided, such as plentiful grass and hay, and perhaps bristle doormats for rolling on. All otters need to be fed regularly, as they have very fast metabolisms and need little and often rather than a couple of large meals a day - failure to provide this results in aggression, vocalization and "begging" behaviour. Duplaix-Hall recommends the addition of extra fat or oil to their meals to keep their coats in good condition. Hussain, Malik & Choudhery, 1996 Hussain and Malik found that the best anaesthetic for Smooth Otters was Hellabrunn mixture, but warned against the use of rubber surgical drapes - they lost a Smooth Otter through inhalation of a shred of the rubber material. Their advice is to use a clean wooden crush cage and no drapes.

Smooth-Coated Otter