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Last week was the best week. I got to go out with some of the folks from PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynnwood to release an otter back into the wild! Okay, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start from the beginning.
Since 1981, PAWS Wildlife Center has cared for 260 different species of animals, fixing them up in their veterinary hospital and releasing them back into the wild.
"The majority of the animals that we get in are coming to us because they've had some sort of negative human interaction," says PAWS' naturalist of 18 years, Kevin Mack. "You know, animals being attacked by outdoor cats, animals that have been hit by cars, birds that have run into windows. We had a Great horned Owl that was entangled in a soccer net."
Kevin says about 3,000 animals come into the center every year, mostly squirrels, song birds and raccoons.
"But we also receive orphaned bear cubs, seal pups, otters, obviously."
They have seven bears in care right now, and all of them came in as cubs.
"At least three of those are mothers hit by cars. We do sometimes get in cubs whose mothers have been shot."
This summer, Kevin will drive about seven hours to return the bears back to the wilderness, where they belong. They will bring dogs to bark at the bears while they're being transported and, once they're released, explosive shells will be fired to scare the bears, so they'll be scared of people and stay in the woods. At the wildlife center, they don't name the animals or pet them or talk to them, the main goal is to get them back to the wild.
But back to the otter...
"He was an orphan. He had become trapped behind a retaining wall. He was stuck back there for a couple of days and was dehydrated when he came in. He was a baby, he fit in your hand. When he came in he was so small. So we actually raised him."
Now, at one year old, he's old enough to leave his "parents" and go off on his own. So we got in Kevin's truck and drove out to a King County Parks property along the Green River.
"I have no doubt once this guy's back out in his natural element he's going to adjust pretty quickly. A lot of their behavior is instinctual."
When we got to the site, Kevin pulled the otter's carrier out of the truck and we walked to the water's edge. He put the carrier at the edge of the water, opened the door, and the otter crept out and immediately dipped under the water.
A group of us quietly looked on, took photos, and smiled like goons while the otter swam around, sometimes returning to his familiar carrier, then swimming out a little farther. A few times, he swam up to us and practically posed for photos.
"Since he seems to be sort of taking an interest in us, rather than exploring, maybe we should head out and leave him to do his thing."
To see this otter, who has spent most of his life in a facility, swim in a real river, dive under the water and happily pop back up - I felt so happy for him! It must have been his best day ever!
"I think it went great, it went just like I hoped," said Kevin, smiling. "The otter slowly started exploring the pool that we released him in. Best of all, it wasn't very long before he already found something to eat. So that's what I always like to see because I know he's going to be okay and be able to take care of himself."
People often wonder if Kevin gets too attached to the animals, if it makes him sad when they are released.
"I never really feel like they're a pet. So there's never any time where there's any sort of feeling of loss releasing the animal. It's really like the happiest day. The whole mission of our work is to get a wild animal back out to it's place in the wild."