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Meet Mo, the zoo's new river otter

by: PHOTO BY MICHAEL DURHAM, COURTESY OF THE OREGON ZOO. - Julie Christie, senior North America keeper at the Oregon Zoo, examines a baby river otter born Jan. 28 to Tilly. The Oregon Zoo’s new baby river otter has a name: Molalla, or Mo for short.

The name comes from the Clackamas County river. Mo’s mother, Tilly, is named for the Tillamook River. She gave birth to the pup on Jan. 28. Mo was the first river otter born at the zoo. He weighed slightly more than 4 ounces. He’s grown to about 2½ pounds.

“A lot of North American zoo animals get their names from nations or cultures associated with their native habitats,” said Julie Christie, senior keeper for the zoo’s North America area. “For the river otters, we like to choose names based on local waterways.”

Tilly and her baby have occupied a private, off-exhibit maternity den since the birth, but keepers say zoo visitors have shown a lot of interest in the new arrival even though they can’t see him yet.

“A lot of people wrote in to offer congratulations and make suggestions for his name,” Christie said. “Several people liked the name Willy, short for Willamette. And one visitor suggested naming him Pudding, after a tributary of the Molalla. We thought that was pretty cute.”

Baby proof the exhibit

River otters are dependent on their mothers when they’re born. It’s usually three to five weeks before young otters open their eyes, and about five weeks before they first walk. Surprisingly, swimming does not come naturally to otters — pups must be taught to swim by their mom.

Christie said Tilly is continuing to do all the right things as a new mom, and the animal-care staff has been as hands-off as possible; they have only quickly examined Mo when Tilly is taking a short break from mom duty.

“We give her access to the exhibit during the day,” Christie said. “But Tilly’s been very attentive and doesn’t spend too long away from Mo. We’re pretty sure the pup’s a male, but we can’t be positive until our vets conduct a more thorough exam. Either way, we think Molalla will be a good name. There are plenty of females named Mo too.”

Keepers are working to “baby proof” the Cascade Stream and Pond section of the zoo’s Great Northwest exhibit and make sure it’s safe for the young otter. If all goes well, zoo visitors will be able to see Tilly and Mo there in a few weeks.

Not really a Buttercup

Since both Tilly and the pup’s father, B.C., were born in the wild, they are considered genetically important for the breeding otter population in North American zoos. Both parents are rescue animals that had a rough start to life.

Tilly was found orphaned near Johnson Creek in 2009. She was about 4 months old, had been wounded by an animal attack and was seriously malnourished. Once her health had stabilized, Tilly came to the Oregon Zoo in a transfer facilitated by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which oversees the species’ protection.

The pup’s father, B.C., was found orphaned near Star City, Ark., also in 2009. He was initially taken in by the Little Rock Zoo, but transferred here the following year as a companion for Tilly. The two otters hit it off quickly and have been playful visitor favorites ever since. (B.C. arrived at the Oregon Zoo with the name Buttercup; when he was little, keepers thought he was female.)

Now that the threat from fur trappers has declined, North American river otters are once again relatively abundant in healthy river systems of the Pacific Northwest and the lakes and tributaries that feed them. Good populations exist in suitable habitat in northeast and Southeast Oregon, but they are scarce in heavily settled areas, especially if waterways are compromised. Because of habitat destruction and water pollution, river otters are considered rare outside the Pacific Northwest.