...AKA Best day of my life.
It's no secret that I'm mildly obsessed with otters– they're like playful little water kittens. So when this video went viral, my jaw dropped. The clip features Stephanie Arne (of Omaha's Wild Kingdom), swimming in a pool with baby otters wriggling in her arms. Between her laughter, she manages to gasp, "I'm so happy! This is the most amazing thing! You guys have to come here!" I took her up on her advice and in ten minutes, had reservations for my first ever Otter Swim.
Eight months later, I was on a plane with my boyfriend to San Diego. We'd booked the first two available time slots, but Nurtured by Nature has an incredibly long waiting list. (In fact, they're now booked up entirely throughout 2017.)
On Friday, November 4, I finally got to meet my favorite animal. What I didn't realize was that I'd be getting to hang out with loads of other animals here as well. The four-hour tour also included interactions with lemurs, kangaroos, and a porcupine, just to name a few. I'm a huge animal lover, so the day was basically heaven.
Not only was the staff incredibly knowledgable about each critter's behavior and background, but they spoke with such passion about the animals they care for. The owners, Kevin and Wendy Yates, are enthusiastic, kind, and friendly people. Their passion behind Nurture by Nature is to offer the opportunity for children with special needs to interact with these animals. They partner with Make a Wish Foundation and provide animal interactions to these children free of charge. Their funding comes through grants and public tours, like the one I joined. It was a wonderful experience to spend the day with the Yates family and their animals.
Read more about the background behind Nurture by Nature here.
The Fennec Foxes
Snickers and Doodle are the resident fennec foxes. Snicker was pretty excited to see us, probably because that meant he was about to get fed meal worms. Doodle was a little more cautious, and preferred to watch the action from his perch above us. Despite their adorable looks, these little guys are fully-grown.
Eurasian Eagle Owl
This lovely lady has outgrown her chick fluff, but only just barely. We were allowed to gently stroke her back while Kevin distracted her with a toy. (That way, everyone leaves happy with their fingers intact.)
Westley and Inigo are rodents of unusual size. Agoutis are native to Central and South America and look like a mix of a giant guinea pig and a fawn. In fact, their dotted coat helps them blend in on the sun-dappled rainforest floor.
These two were suckers for peanuts and grapes. They closed their eyes while chewing, like they were savoring a delicacy. Once the food was gone, they explored our laps, sniffing and seeking out back scratches.
Kiki is just a kitten and one of the newest additions to Nurtured by Nature. We were encouraged to gently pet her coat while one of the instructors fed her fish. The fish treats are to help her grow accustomed to being around strangers in close proximity. Most of my photos of her playing are motion-blurred into oblivion.
Nurtured by Nature is one of the only facilities in the world that successfully breeds 3-banded armadillos. They're tricky to breed in captivity, so whatever the staff is doing seems to be working. We were instructed on how to hold armadillos properly– one hand on their bottom with another hand supporting their backs. When we set them on the ground, they buzzed around our feet like wind up toys.
Belt was fresh from his bath when we got to see him. His interests: back scratches, blinking slowly, clinging. I might be in love.
Cuddles lives up to her name. When we entered her home, she wiggled her butt and ran over to see what we brought to feed her. (Bananas and apples.)
Gizmo, the Red Ruffed Lemur, was significantly less photogenic than his Ring-Tailed Lemur counterpart. He was more focused on chewing grapes and holding onto our fingers than posing for the camera.
Boomerang and Buckaroo were two of the sweetest animals I've ever met. We charmed them with handfuls of bananas and pets. Having a kangaroo lick a mushy banana out of the palm of my hand was one of the greatest joys I've ever known.
Asian Small-Clawed Otters
This is the moment I'd been waiting for. After three hours of awesome animal meet-and-greets, we headed to the pool overlooking the valley. We stood in the pool with heightened anticipation as our guides went to retrieve the otters.
They brought four babies and two "aunts". All six otters had barely touched the deck before they came bounding towards us and into the pool. This was the moment I'd been waiting for and I immediately broke the first rule: no loud noises. (The sound that came out of my mouth was a giggle/shriek/sob.) Sorry, little otter eardrums.
Other otter rules:
1. No chasing otters. It's annoying.
2. Don't stick your hands into a ball of wrestling otters.
3. Don't let otters chew on your hair.
4. Don't let otters chew on your goggles.
5. Don't buy a pet otter when you go home. They make terrible pets.
While I don't have a photo of the actual moment the otters first entered the pool (I was too excited to hold a camera), this is close. Every once in awhile, one of the otters would exit the pool and race across the deck. The others would follow suit and they'd scurry around until belly-flopping back into the water.
When baby otters' hair is wet, it sticks straight up on the backs of their heads. They're like little punk rock kittens. Adorable.
Drew became the Favorite Human when he startled dangling this chew toy into the water. I could barely contain my jealousy.
With me, their favorite game was to dig out a marble from this orange cup and stash it in my swimsuit with their little paws. Bikini top or bikini bottom; they weren't picky with their preference.
This one discovered the barrel of toys and couldn't contain her excitement. She tried to drag just about every one of her rubber toys into the water.
The otters would decide when pool time was over. Our guides told us they usually lasted about 30–60 minutes before heading out and waiting by the gate. This group must have loved us, because they played for a full hour before leaving the pool.
The happiest moment of my life, captured in a photo.
Thank you for this unforgettable experience, Nurtured by Nature!
My "Five Otters" watercolor art print is available on My Etsy shop here!