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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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20 Black-and-White Facts About Penguins
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To celebrate World Penguin Day (which is today, April 25), here are a few fun facts about these adorable tuxedoed birds.

1. All 17 species of penguins are found exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere.

2. Emperor Penguins are the tallest species, standing nearly 4 feet tall. The smallest is the Little Blue Penguin, which is only about 16 inches.

emperor penguin
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3. The fastest species is the Gentoo Penguin, which can reach swimming speeds up to 22 mph.

Gentoo Penguin
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4. A penguin's striking coloring is a matter of camouflage; from above, its black back blends into the murky depths of the ocean. From below, its white belly is hidden against the bright surface.

penguins swimming in the ocean
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5. Fossils place the earliest penguin relative at some 60 million years ago, meaning an ancestor of the birds we see today survived the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.

emperor penguins
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6. Penguins ingest a lot of seawater while hunting for fish, but a special gland behind their eyes—the supraorbital gland—filters out the saltwater from their blood stream. Penguins excrete it through their beaks, or by sneezing.

penguins swimming in the ocean
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7. Unlike most birds—which lose and replace a few feathers at a time—penguins molt all at once, spending two or three weeks land-bound as they undergo what is called the catastrophic molt.

molting penguin
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8. All but two species of penguins breed in large colonies of up to a thousand birds.

king penguins
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9. It varies by species, but many penguins will mate with the same member of the opposite sex season after season.

chinstrap penguins
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10. Similarly, most species are also loyal to their exact nesting site, often returning to the same rookery in which they were born.

maegellic penguin nesting
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11. Some species create nests for their eggs out of pebbles and loose feathers. Emperor Penguins are an exception: They incubate a single egg each breeding season on the top of their feet. Under a loose fold of skin is a featherless area with a concentration of blood vessels that keeps the egg warm.

penguin eggs
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12. In some species, it is the male penguin which incubates the eggs while females leave to hunt for weeks at a time. Because of this, pudgy males—with enough fat storage to survive weeks without eating—are most desirable.

emperor penguins
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13. Penguin parents—both male and female—care for their young for several months until the chicks are strong enough to hunt for food on their own.

Penguins nest
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14. If a female Emperor Penguin's baby dies, she will often "kidnap" an unrelated chick.

penguin chicks
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15. Despite their lack of visible ears, penguins have excellent hearing and rely on distinct calls to identify their mates when returning to the crowded breeding grounds.

16. The first published account of penguins comes from Antonio Pigafetta, who was aboard Ferdinand Magellan's first circumnavigation of the globe in 1520. They spotted the animals near what was probably Punta Tombo in Argentina. (He called them "strange geese.")

17. An earlier, anonymous diary entry from Vasco da Gama's 1497 voyage around the Cape of Good Hope makes mention of flightless birds as large as ducks.

18. Because they aren't used to danger from animals on solid ground, wild penguins exhibit no particular fear of human tourists.

19. Unlike most sea mammals—which rely on blubber to stay warm—penguins survive because their feathers trap a layer of warm air next to the skin that serves as insulation, especially when they start generating muscular heat by swimming around.

20. In the 16th century, the word penguin actually referred to great auks (scientific name: Pinguinus impennis), a now-extinct species that inhabited the seas around eastern Canada. When explorers traveled to the Southern Hemisphere, they saw black and white birds that resembled auks, and called them penguins.

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6 Myths About Animals, Debunked
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It’s easy to think we understand animals: They’re present in every part of our culture, from the movies we watch to the clichés we use. But the way a species functions in the wild is often worlds apart from a stereotype or cartoon. This gulf between misconceptions and reality is the theme of Lucy Cooke’s new book, The Truth About Animals.

"We have a habit of viewing the animal kingdom through the prism of our own existence, and that trips us up and obscures the truth,” Cooke, a zoologist and founder of the Sloth Appreciation Society, tells Mental Floss. “I think it's time we rebrand the animal kingdom according to facts and not sentimentality.”

As Cooke examines in her book, the real world is one in which pandas are virile lovers and sloths are master survivalists. These are just a few of the myths that were debunked in The Truth About Animals.

1. PANDAS HAVE LOW SEX DRIVES.

Pandas have long been blamed for their own precarious position in the animal kingdom. The species is in danger, some people claim, because pandas are reluctant to or just plain bad at copulating. If only they would get off their furry behinds and get it on, there would be more of them.

In The Truth About Animals, Cooke debunks this modern myth. Pandas have been living in the wild for 18 million years—long before humans swooped in to act as their savior—and that wouldn’t be the case without healthy sex habits. It’s true that pandas are difficult to breed in captivity, and the several failed attempts of zoos to produce a baby panda throughout the 20th century is likely what led to this stereotype. But the bears are much more responsive to members of the opposite sex in the wild. The female chooses who she mates with, moaning from high in a bamboo tree while several males on the ground compete for her attention. Once the bears have paired off, they can have sex over 40 times in one afternoon.

2. SLOTHS ARE LAZY.

Cooke was inspired to write her book by sloths, which she describes to Mental Floss as “highly successful, highly evolved” creatures. Not everyone agrees: More than perhaps any other animal, sloths have become synonymous with laziness and sluggishness, and today they’re held up as an example of evolutionary failure.

The reality is that sloths are much more impressive than their appearance suggests. They’ve been around since 64 million years ago—earlier than wooly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers—and they have their slow and steady nature to thank for their success. Sloths have a remarkably slow digestive system and a low-calorie diet, so they expend as little energy as possible, not out of laziness, but out of survival instinct. A sloth is awake for more than half the day, and when necessary it can scramble up a tree at speeds approaching 1 mph. It spends most of its day in a still, seemingly trancelike state, but it isn’t wasting its potential: It’s conserving energy so it can maintain its dominant spot in the evolutionary tree.

3. PENGUINS ARE LOYAL LOVERS.

Emperor penguins, the most famous of the bird group, are known for splitting parenting duties between mated pairs, with the father incubating the egg while the mother gathers food for her family. This has led some to praise penguins as the reflection of ideal, moral family dynamics in the animal kingdom, but these people should probably find a different analog. Though the parents of any given chick may raise their offspring together, penguins aren’t monogamous: 85 percent of emperor penguins find a new partner from one breeding season to the next. Penguins are also some of the only animals known to exchange goods for sex. Adélie penguins need rocks to build up their nests during warmer months when meltwater threatens their eggs. With no parenting duties to distract them, bachelor penguins end up collecting more stones than they need, so some females will sometimes trade a one-off sex session for one of their pebbles.

4. VULTURES STALK DYING PREY.

Watch enough survival movies and you’re bound to see a shot of a hungry vulture trailing behind the starving protagonist, waiting for them to lie down and die. The myth that vultures stalk their prey while it’s still alive and have the power to predict death is a persistent one, but that doesn’t make it accurate. The scavengers have no interest in living animals and will only seek out meat from dead and decaying corpses. Rather than reaper-like premonitions of mortality, turkey vultures and greater and lesser yellow-headed vultures use their noses to locate their meals. They join kiwis and kakapos on the small list of birds with highly-developed olfactory glands. Without a strong sense of smell, other New World vultures and all Old World vultures primarily rely on sight to find food. Some New World vultures like black vultures have adopted a different strategy: They'll follow turkey vultures to their prey, taking advantage of their sensitive noses.

5. ALL BATS ARE RABID BLOOD-SUCKERS.

Bats may be the animals most closely associated with the horror genre. They crave blood, so the myth goes, and though a bat latched onto your neck won’t be able to suck you dry, it will likely infect you with a nasty case of rabies.

According to Cooke, there are many problems with the statement above. Bats are poor stand-ins for their fictional vampire counterparts; only three species of bats drink blood—the common vampire bat, the hairy-legged vampire bat, and the white-winged vampire bat—while most prefer fruit or insects. After climbing onto its prey, the vampire bat locates where the blood is flowing with the heat sensor on its nose, and then, using its sharp front teeth like shears, it cuts away any hair that might be blocking the skin. Rather than biting down and sucking like Dracula, the bat creates a small incision and laps up blood from the open wound. They can recognize an individual animal's breathing patterns and return to feed on it the following night, taking advantage of the reliable blood source.

Bats are rarely rabid, with just .05 percent of them carrying the disease—less than dogs or raccoons. The image of a bat getting tangled in your hair also has no basis in reality: Their sophisticated echolocation system signals them to turn long before they have a chance to collide with your head.

6. FEMALE HYENAS HAVE PENISES.

Hyena genitalia has been baffling scientists for centuries. Member of both sexes appear to have a penis, while in females there’s no external vagina to be found. Scientists originally thought that hyenas must be hermaphrodites, but the true explanation is even more unusual. Though it’s often referred to as a pseudo-penis, female hyena genitalia doesn’t produce sperm, technically making it a nearly 8-inch-long clitoris. This appendage is also saddled with all the same duties as a conventional female organ, including giving birth to hyena pups.

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