When I think of Buddy, the image of him catching a fish twice his size comes to mind. This happened a few months ago at Karanambu. Stefy and Talia had taken him down to the Rupununi River for his afternoon feeding and a swim. They had plenty of fish to feed him on that day, which meant he was full of energy—enough to go fishing for himself. To everyone’s astonishment, he emerged from the water with an eighty-nine pound arapaima. There’s a photo of him struggling to drag his prize onto the sand bank.
None of us can figure out how Buddy found such a huge fish so close to the landing. It seems that it must have been his lucky day. But what’s really amazing is that he was—and still is—mostly blind. Then again, giant otters don’t use their sense of sight as much as they do their sense of smell and touch to hunt for fish in low light, or along the murky river bottom. He was just fishing like any other giant otter.
Once Buddy ate his fill, the next question was what to do with the fish. Apparently, he objected loudly when several strong young men tried to take the fish away from him. They had to drag it, with Buddy helping, up the path to the main house. Because arapaima are endangered, it was technically illegal for the Karanambu staff to consume the rest of the fish. Or was it? This was also the year of the first legal harvest of arapaima in the North Rupununi. There had been a quota set of one hundred fish to be caught by traditional bow and arrow. But the number caught (36) was far lower. Maybe Buddy’s fish counted as number thirty-seven.
A few weeks before Buddy’s great catch, he managed to pull something almost as impressive out of the river: a huge stingray. Stefy said the otter was so bloated after eating his fill that his belly touched the ground. This is the second image of Buddy that comes to mind.
Sadly, Buddy won’t be fishing in the Rupununi any longer. The good news is, though, he has a much better chance of survival. As I write he is on his way to the Jacksonville Zoo in Florida, USA. There he will be safe from attacks by wild otters, caiman, and people. He will have a chance to breed. He might even regain some vision with intensive medical care.
Admittedly, the odds of Buddy going wild again were low from the beginning. Having grown up in an Amerindian village, rather than the isolation of Diane’s otter pens, he is very imprinted on people. (See prior blog posts from June 2009 about how Buddy came to Karanambu.) Instead of being focused on Diane, he will follow anyone with fish in their hands. All agreed that it was only a matter of time before Buddy jumped into someone’s boat to steal fish. In retaliation, he would probably be killed. It has happened before.
When Buddy was injured and lost most of his vision, his chances of going wild dropped to near zero. He became an easy target for wild otters or caiman. In the meantime, he kept growing and his play with Diane became more aggressive. In recent months, she hasn’t been able to swim with him without getting dunked and bitten. But full containment wasn’t a realistic option. The otter pens at Karanambu have never been set up to contain an otter completely, or for 24 hours a day. Diane’s strategy all along has been to keep the orphans safe at night, and give them their freedom down at the river during the day. This is the only way they can learn to be wild again.
Despite all of this, had the Jacksonville Zoo not had a prior giant otter breeding loan agreement with the Government of Guyana, I’m not sure that Buddy would be anywhere other than at Karanambu. The move is without a doubt the best thing for his survival, but it feels terrible. I have a knot in my stomach that won’t go away. Part of my reaction is a selfish one, a sense of failure. The other part has to do with the fact that unlike other zoo-born otters, Buddy knows what it’s like to swim and fish in his natural home. I can only imagine his surprise when takes his first dip in chlorinated water.
I’m sure Jacksonville Zoo will share Buddy’s story and I’ll post any links here. We’ll all be following along to hear how he adjusts.