Monday, September 5, 2011

Baby otter may have been victim of oil spill

Abandoned baby otter must be taught to swim by Slidell wildlife rehabilitation specialist

Published: Monday, September 05, 2011, 11:00 AM
Clairese, an orphaned North American river otter, is full of energy, precocious and a bit headstrong. Her foster family hopes these qualities will assist her in making it, when she is returned to the wild.
aaaclair.jpgClairese is one of the many rescued animals that have found refuge with the South East Wildlife Refuge.
Clairese was just 2 weeks old when she became a foster otter child of Michelle Carollo, president of the South East Wildlife Rescue and a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. The baby otter had been discovered in a den made by her mother under a woodpile at Bobby Lynn's Marina, on the Louisiana coast. "The mother was never found, and she was so small her eyes weren't open yet," Carollo said.
The small North American river otter showed signs of neurological damage in her back legs, and the rehabilitative specialists believe the mother might have been exposed to the Gulf oil spill, with the damage being done in utero. Along with the standard care given to orphaned wildlife, Carollo consulted with experts at SeaWorld for suggestions on the special care needs for the young river otter.
Now 7 months old, Clairese has shown improvement, and Carollo and her husband, Charles, also a wildlife rehabilitation specialist, are hopeful she will be able to be released in the wild in a few months. The Carollos have cared for more than 200 animals, everything from raccoons, squirrels, a bobcat and a wild boar since starting South East Wildlife Rescue.
One of the more interesting aspects of this particular foster is Michelle Carollo actually had to teach Clairese to swim.
"River otters spend about 80 percent of their time on land. The mothers teach their babies to swim. So we had to teach Clairese," Carollo explained. "She had a fear of the water, just like some babies. At first, she would just cling to me. We had to get her used to the water, then teach her to hold her breath and then to float. It took about a week."
As cute and charming as Clairese is, Carollo is quick to point out she is still a wild animal with a set of long, sharp teeth.
"They can be very aggressive and possessive of food and toys," said Carollo. "They use their sharp teeth to crack open crabs, crawfish and shrimp." As a member of the same family as ferrets and skunks, river otters also have a spray mechanism for defense.
If Clairese continues to progress and her leg issues are resolved, she will be transitioned to a normal river otter habitat and set free.
"Right now, we place her food outside in hiding places so that she has to learn to hunt for it. She has also started hunting herself, for foods like frogs," said Carollo. "Once we know her leg issue is resolved, we will transition her to an outdoor facility that's exposed to the elements and where she will have minimal contact with humans. Then the next step is to hopefully place her with other river otters."
If Clairese's leg problems continue, she may need to go to a facility such as SeaWorld, where she could live with other river otters in a protected environment, she said.
Although Clairese considers Michelle Carollo her mother and rarely leaves her side, the little river otter has a whole family of caregivers. Along with Charles, the Carollo's daughter, Sydney, is a big help, as well as Michelle's parents, Charlene and Ray Partridge.
"We put our house up for sale earlier this summer and are in the process of building a house. We did not expect it to sell so fast. So when we moved in with my parents, they welcomed Clairese as well. They are a big help, especially when I am at work," said Carollo, Director of Women and Children Services at Slidell Memorial Hospital.
At the new house, the Carollos are adding a small building in the back to act as an intake center for South East Wildlife Refuge. The building, about 1,000 square feet, will help them expand their mission.
"With our nursing backgrounds, we get a lot of calls from rehabbers with animals in need of medical care. We can help them with critical issues and then return the animals back to them to complete the rehab process," Carollo said.
The more than 40 licensed wildlife rehabilitators in the state are unpaid volunteers and go through extensive training to be licensed. They also make presentations to community groups and schools about their programs and the importance of having habitat to support wildlife.
"We receive no reimbursement for the services we provide. Everyone does it out of the kindness of their hearts and their love of wildlife," said Carollo. She admits the cost of food, medicine and veterinary services add up.
Two ways the community can help the nonprofit Southeast Wildlife Refuge is by sponsoring an orphaned or injured animal through food donations or funds.
"We would love to have a seafood market sponsor Clairese. Her diet consists mainly of fresh fish, crawfish, shrimp and crabs. Although she's a young river otter, she's got a good appetite," said Carollo. "Any donations toward her diet would be helpful."
Another need is for release sites when it's time to return an animal back to the woods, river or bayou. The organization has to have the permission of landowners to release the animal on the property, Carollo said. The organization's priorities are to rescue, rehab and release.
Until that day comes for Clairese, she is content to swim in her kiddy pool and hunt in the Partridge's backyard, according to her foster mom.
"Since we started working with Clairese, we received other calls about otters. We now have plans to put a pond in our new backyard near the rehab building," Carollo said.
Animal sponsorships are available for as little as $25 and are tax-deductible. For information about South East Wildlife Rescue or to sponsor an animal, e-mail Michelle Carollo at or visit

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