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Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Where Swimming With Otters Brings Peace and Healing to Kids (and Adults)

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

For the fourth time in an hour, I reached into the back of my bathing suit and pulled out a small worn-down rock. The Asian small-clawed otter named Rocket who had deposited it there watched me, waiting, as I held out the rock to look at it. In a flash, the aptly named Rocket swam up and snatched it from my hand. This time he neatly deposited the rock down the front of my bathing suit. Almost immediately he decided he wanted it back, so he went after it, right down the front of my bathing suit, sparking a wave of giggles from me and the other swimmers.

The staff at Nurtured by Nature in Valley Center, California, told me it’s a sign of friendliness when the otters shove rocks into your swimsuit. They’ve developed a game based on the habit: When you get out of the pool, whoever has the most rocks hiding in their suit wins. My total in and out of water was about six. By this metric, I think I made a new otter best friend that day. Thanks, Rocket.

Woman swimming underwater with an Otter
Nurtured by Nature

While swimming in a pool of otters is almost certainly the main attraction for many people visiting Nurtured by Nature, it’s far from the only exotic animal experience you can have there. A $300 excursion takes about three hours and gives you access to a wide range of animals to feed, pet, and play with, including kangaroos, sloths, armadillos, porcupines, lemurs, owls, serval cats, and more. The otter swim caps the event, when you stand in a pool with up to seven other people while several Asian small-clawed otters dive in and swim up to you. When they're not shoving rocks in your bathing suit, they're sharing their water toys with you.

Two women playing with Otters
Nurtured by Nature

It may seem like a steep price tag, but it’s all for a good cause: Nurtured by Nature’s main goal is to offer animal programs for kids through the Make A Wish Foundation. The proceeds from the public excursions go toward ensuring those visits remain free. Wendy and Kevin Yates, the owners, host about two Make A Wish families each month, customizing the program completely to the child’s desires, within safety limits. According to Wendy Yates, Nurtured by Nature has helped grant about 45 wishes since 2013, fueled by the funds from about 1700 public visits a year.

Eleven-year-old Reagan McBride from Alabama was one of those 45. Reagan has osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease, and is paralyzed from the neck down as a result, with limited mobility in her arms.

“She’s had fractures since before she was born,” Jeri Ann McBride, Reagan’s mother, tells mental_floss. “But she can still elbow punch her brother.”

When Reagan and her family came to Nurtured by Nature in 2015, it was because of a wish to spend time with animals at the San Diego Zoo, where Kevin Yates was a zookeeper for more than two decades before starting Nurtured by Nature with Wendy. Reagan got to do a behind-the-scenes tour at the zoo, thanks to Make A Wish, which also arranged for her otter swim at Nurtured by Nature. It was her favorite part of the animal tour because “the otters were funny,” she says.


Jeri Ann McBride

“They were up close and personal, something she would never get to experience otherwise,” Jeri Ann says. “It’s important for us to see her smiling and having a good time. Knowing that she’s had such a challenging life, to see her happy and enjoying life is just a huge blessing.”

Wendy agrees. “There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing a smile on the faces of the little kids, and then hearing from their caretaker that they haven’t seen their child smile or giggle in the last six months to a year because of the treatments they’ve been going through.”

Those smiling faces appear in handmade collages decorating the locker area at the facility that showcase the happiness and fun experienced by children who need it most. Make A Wish programs here are limited to one family per visit, so the children can get the most one-on-one interaction time with the animals possible.

“Every day we hear from people how it was the best day of their lives and it gave them so much joy,” she said. “What more can anybody ask for than to be able to give back to the world that way?”

The McBrides shared that sentiment. “It was the best trip ever,” Jeri Ann recalls. “We ran out of storage because we took so many pictures.”


Jeri Ann McBride

For the Yates family, Nurtured by Nature is truly a mission of giving back. Their house was destroyed in the southern California wildfires in 2003. So many people—friends, family, and strangers—helped the couple get back on their feet. There was no way they could ever repay those who helped them, so Wendy says they decided to pay it forward instead, by opening Nurtured by Nature in 2008 and launching a partnership with Make A Wish.

Every animal on the property is considered a pet, complete with family bickering over what to name each of them, and the animals’ physical and emotional well-being is top priority. Some of the animals are born there (the otters were born and raised on-site from captive-born parents that came from two different zoos) as part of a conservation breeding program; others are surplus animals from other zoos; and many of them are rescues from breeders and research facilities, or animals confiscated by the State Department.

Nurtured by Nature is a California Fish and Wildlife- and USDA-permitted and inspected facility. The team works in concert with two veterinarians and ensures that everyone working with the animals has ample experience in the field. Kevin Yates has more than 30 years of professional exotic animal experience, and all 25 volunteers have a veterinary or zoological background.

My otter swim was the standard excursion, but that day it was a bit extended—not because we got special treatment, but because Rocket didn’t want to get out of the pool. Basically, you aren’t done until the otters are done. I stood by in the pool and watched as Rocket sat down under the railing on the pool steps just out of reach of Sarah, one of the animal keepers. He reached out his paw, grabbed one of Sarah’s hands, mischievously stared into her eyes for a minute, and then took off swimming again, inviting all of us to join the fun.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Watch Christmas Island’s Annual Crab Migration on Google Street View
Google
Google

Every year, the 45 million or so red crabs on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island migrate en masse from their forest burrows down to the ocean to mate, and so the female crabs can release their eggs into the sea to hatch. The migration starts during the fall, and the number of crabs on the beach often peaks in December. This year, you don’t have to be on Christmas Island to witness the spectacular crustacean event, as New Atlas reports. You can see it on Google Street View.

Watching the sheer density of crabs scuttling across roads, boardwalks, and beaches is a rare visual treat. According to the Google blog, this year’s crabtacular finale is forecasted for December 16, and Parks Australia crab expert Alasdair Grigg will be there with the Street View Trekker to capture it. That is likely to be the day when crab populations on the beaches will be at their peak, giving you the best view of the action.

Crabs scuttle across the forest floor while a man with a Google Street View Trekker walks behind them.
Google

Google Street View is already a repository for a number of armchair travel experiences. You can digitally explore remote locations in Antarctica, recreations of ancient cities, and even the International Space Station. You can essentially see the whole world without ever logging off your computer.

Sadly, because Street View isn’t live, you won’t be able to see the migration as it happens. The image collection won’t be available until sometime in early 2018. But it’ll be worth the wait, we promise. For a sneak preview, watch Parks Australia’s video of the 2012 event here.

[h/t New Atlas]

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