An otter turned outlaw continues to evade wildlife officials in Santa Cruz
An otter in California is on the run from local and federal authorities, wanted for aggressively confronting locals and stealing surfboards at a popular beach. But its outlaw status has turned the slippery sea otter into an international icon, with growing support to leave her in the wild.
The 5-year-old female otter, known officially as otter 841, has been deemed a public safety risk by state and federal wildlife officials because of her "unusually aggressive" behavior along the Santa Cruz coast. As a result, wildlife officials and Monterey Bay Aquarium staff are attempting to capture and rehome the otter to an aquarium or zoo, according to a joint news release. But support for a live-and-let-live approach is growing with each unsuccessful attempt.
Mark Woodward is a local Santa Cruz photographer who has chronicled 841's adventures for over a month on Instagram. Last week, he snapped a photo of an activist dressed as an otter holding a surfboard that read "Keep 841 free." Another local, Ann Stadler, voiced her support for otter 841 in a letter to the editor in the Santa Cruz Sentinel published on Thursday.
"I don't have all the facts and history of the incidents but it just seems to me to be yet another example of humans feeling that they have the right of way on the earth and that other contemporary species and their rights to their native habitats are expendable," Stadler wrote.
There are several petitions circulating online in support of 841's freedom, one of which has gathered over 50,000 signatures.
The otter's antics have become a viral sensation in recent weeks, generating a multitude of memes shared across social media platforms. Santa Cruz's most wanted even has an Instagram fan page, @thesurfingotter, home to a series of parody images, including one that compares otter 841 to Batman in Christopher Nolan's 2008 film "The Dark Knight."
"She's the hero Santa Cruz deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we'll hunt her. Because she can take it," the meme reads. "Because she's not our hero. She's a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark night."
However, the agencies charged with catching 841 have maintained their stance that capturing and rehoming her is best for the otter and humans alike. Biologists say catching the otter could take days or weeks because of environmental conditions like water clarity. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) told NPR that capture efforts could be "suspended or halted entirely" if the otter continues to elude officials and stops interacting with people.
Wildlife experts remain uncertain about why the otter is behaving this way. Monterey Bay Aquarium spokesperson Kevin Connor previously told NPR that otter 841 was born in the aquarium approximately five years ago, where she was raised by her mother and minimally cared for by staff disguised in black rubber suits and welding masks to hide their human appearance.
She was successfully released into the wild in June 2020 and appeared to be doing well, until last September, when her interactions with humans were first documented in the area.
The CDFW says the otter could be behaving this way because of positive interactions with people, such as feeding, which would explain why she's not exhibiting a healthy fear of humans. Officials want to catch the otter so she can be thoroughly examined at the Monterey Bay Aquarium before finding her a new home, all but certainly in an approved zoo or aquarium.
Like her current summer escapades, otter 841 was caught harassing surfers in Santa Cruz last September. CDFW and aquarium staff were able to drive her away from the area, but she returned to her stomping grounds and resumed her unusual behavior last month.
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