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California’s Most Wanted Sea Otter Bites Back



Santa Cruz's "aggressive" female otter, 841, defends herself against human bias, arguing she's less dangerous than surfers. (GV Wire Composite/David Rodriguez)
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Photo of Joe Mathews

Joe Mathews


Who are you to be calling me aggressive?

Yes, I’m the 5-year-old female otter, from Santa Cruz, about whom you’ve been reading scare headlines.

Now, I do sometimes approach surfers or kayakers in ways they interpret as threatening. And on occasion, I separate surfers from their boards and exercise my right, as a Californian, to ride the waves myself.

Who is the Real Aggressor?

But have I ever done anything truly aggressive, at least by Santa Cruz standards? It’s not like I ever swiped a street parking space near the Boardwalk, or bid $200,000 over asking on a three-bedroom in Seabright.

Which is why it’s downright slanderous to say, as the city of Santa Cruz has on signs posted near the coast, that I’m an “aggressive sea otter” so dangerous that people shouldn’t go in the water. And if I could hire a lawyer, I might have a case against biased human media who call me “wayward” or a “renegade”—without ever bothering to ask me for comment.

The true aggressors in this otter’s story are all too human. And I’m not just talking about the paparazzi who paddle out to take my photo.

I’ve Been Treated Unfairly

As of this writing, there are no confirmed cases of me hurting anyone. Still, I’m being relentlessly hunted by state officials, as if I were a dangerous fugitive.

Yes, I’ve bitten a few holes in some boards. But c’mon! Human Californians can shoplift in Union Square and smoke meth in the Tenderloin without any real fear of imprisonment.

Yet I, for spooking a few surfers, could lose my freedom. The state’s plan is to capture me (they may have succeeded by the time you read this) and relocate me to a zoo or aquarium, placing me in front of audiences with little compensation—like actors in a Netflix show.

California’s Plan For Me: Otter Injustice

But it could get worse for me. Experts who study otters have raised the possibility that, if I’m ever accused of doing harm to a human, I’ll have to be euthanized — without a trial before a human jury, much less a panel of my fellow marine mammals.

And you thought Governor Newsom had put a moratorium on executions.

Of course, deadly attacks on otters are a human tradition. There are only around 3,000 of us southern sea otters living off the California coast today because of mass slaughter by fur traders in previous centuries. We remain a threatened species.

So, don’t I have every reason to bite back?

It’s the Human’s Fault

I was born in captivity and returned to the wild, with a number (841) and a transmitter for monitoring. After I was reported for “aggressiveness” two years ago, state and Monterey Bay Aquarium officials yelled loudly at me to make me afraid of people. This intervention didn’t work.

I can’t help it if I run a little hot. My metabolism requires that I eat one-quarter of my body weight each day in fish and crab and urchins. I have to eat even more when I’m pregnant.

It’s ironic that I’m in trouble for confronting surfers. Because surfers, who constantly swim right into my ecosystem, are far more aggressive than me. Santa Cruz has a long history of surfers who defend their breaks violently, and even form gangs. But I’m the threat here?

Otters: An Undervalued California Asset

To the contrary, I should be seen as a California asset. I’m out here breeding—two pregnancies so far—while the declining human birth rate is causing California to lose population. Love of seal life like me powers the Monterey Bay’s tourism economy. I’m an environmental steward, eating the sea urchins that can devour kelp forests.

Despite all we do for society, we otters are excluded from participation in decisions that affect us. This is primitive, and hypocritical for a state that purports to be democratic. Efforts are underway, here and elsewhere, to create democratic multi-species constitutions for vital commons spaces on this planet, including oceans.

As University of Leicester politics professor Rob Garner has written, “the interests of animals are affected—often devastatingly—by collective decisions and, therefore, they.. have a democratic right to have some say in the making of those decisions.”

I shouldn’t be evading state officials. I should be helping to govern them. Because the real aggression on California’s coast is your anthropocentrism.

About the Author

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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