A river otter on Lake Merritt?

river otter
If you spot a river otter, leave it alone and contact the River Otter Ecology Project. Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch. Click this image for more photos.

A couple weeks ago, something pretty unusual was spotted in downtown Oakland. A North American river otter stopped by the Lake Merritt boathouse, posed for a photo, and caused a bit of a stir.

Naturally, the photo found its way onto Facebook and Twitter, and Save The Bay passed it along with a sense of celebration: Huzzah for spunky and adorable Bay critters! Congrats to Oakland for reconnecting the lake to the Bay! Thanks to everyone who works to make the Bay healthy for humans and wildlife!

But then, at the request of one of our environmental partners, we agreed to delete our post from Facebook. Wildlife groups were justifiably concerned about the “Sutro Sam effect”—you know, the phenomenon where a bunch of bozos think it’s okay to approach a wild animal, offer it food, throw stuff to provoke a reaction, and unleash their dogs for uninvited play dates.

In retrospect, I’m not sure what we expected to accomplish by removing our Facebook post. If the otter (Let’s call her Merritt Mary) had decided to take up residence, there would have been no keeping the lid on it. We all know that soon enough there would be viral videos, a Merritt Mary Twitter account, and in all likelihood a parade of people getting all up in Merritt Mary’s face.

The fact is, many of us are generally pretty clueless when it comes to animals in the wild. We tend to imagine them as pets or pests, when we think of them at all. And when it comes to San Francisco Bay, we often forget that beyond the postcard-perfect view, it is first and foremost a habitat for hundreds of amazing species. Otters, sea lions, seals, porpoises, skates, sharks, jellyfish, octopuses, herring, pipefish, rockfish and many others make their home in the Bay. We don’t often see them, so it can be easy to forget that our own bad behaviors affect them every day—from the plastic bags we let escape into the environment to littered toxic cigarette butts we give so little thought to.

Personally, I’m still hoping that Merritt Mary will make her way back to the boathouse and take up residence somewhere just out of onlookers’ reach, like the sly sea lions famously have done over at San Francisco’s Pier 39. We could all use a reminder of the wildlife in our midst, if only to remind us not to be such bozos.

If you spot a river otter in the Bay Area, report your sighting to the River Otter Ecology Project