We all love a good otter meme, right? But, have you ever wondered why some of these hilarious pics seem to feature otters owned by humans? It's also not unlikely you have encountered — or even followed — an otter on Instagram. There are plenty of accounts featuring these lovable little mammals playing with toys on a living-room floor, curling up in a person's bed or eating out of a dog bowl — we've even written about one of them. But, as more and more of these pop up, we found ourselves asking: Where is everyone getting these pet otters on Instagram, and is it even OK for otters to be pets in the first place?
As is the case with most wild animals, the experts don't recommend keeping otters in a domestic setting (and it's illegal in many countries). But that hasn't stopped some people.
We contacted numerous river otter owners (the breed that seems most pervasive for domestication, since they can live on land, unlike sea otters who spend most of their lives in the ocean). Six of them agreed to speak about how they got their pet and care for the otter in captivity.
Of the six owners we spoke to, four had otters that were rescued, with three of them being found in the wild and one being taken home from a zoo when the owner claimed the mother otter couldn't feed it. Two were purchased from breeders.
The majority of the owners came from Asian countries: three from Indonesia, one from Japan and one from Thailand. One otter lived in the Netherlands.
It seems that many of the pet otters on Instagram live in Asian countries, likely because several breeds, like the Asian small-clawed otter, are wild there and easier to come by.
All of the owners we spoke to insisted their pets were thriving in captivity.
"He [is] totally happy. You can see how happy he is from the video and photos I've posted," said Instagram user babietheotter. Babie's owner said he's fed a diet filled with protein, including eggs and chicken.
Social media posts from the account include Babie swimming in a kiddie pool, playing with the owner's dog and going for rides in the car.
Kiko_otter purchased their pet from a seller on Facebook and has raised Kiko since he was 2 months old. (He is now a year and a half old.) His owner tells us Kiko is "so cute and funny ... smart and loyal," and subsists on a diet of catfish and chicken heads. He lives indoors, but the owner claims Kiko is often allowed outside to play.
He has a leash and harness so he can be taken on walks.
Piptheotter was rescued from the zoo, according to her zookeeper owner, who claimed the otter's mother wasn't able to nurse a fifth baby.
Her owner didn't return Pip to the zoo because she feared Pip would allegedly be used for children's parties "and other educational things."
The owner also claimed, "That would be a disaster and she would be alone for the rest of her life." Pip's owner didn't share where this zoo was, so it's hard to verify her claims.
But it would be strange for a zoo to isolate an otter. Usually they have several in an enclosure since they're social animals.
Meanwhile, Ottermellz rescued Melly when she was found alone in the wild.
She now sleeps in a crate but has free reign of the house during the day and eats a diet of raw fish. We asked Ottermellz why they didn't bring the otter to a rescue center instead. The Instagram user stated that "Indonesia animal [centers are] so different from America animal shelter[s]. In Indonesia [there] is no love to looking after [the] animal."
A rep for the Jakarta Animal Aid Network in Indonesia stated that if someone finds a wild, injured otter, they should contact their local animal shelter rather than take the animal home.
"Otters are wild animals and should be kept wild," the Jakarta Animal Aid Network rep said. "It's harmful for an otter to be hand-raised by humans, as the otter will have little release chance afterward. And all the natural needs of an otter cant be fulfilled when they are in people's home."
This sentiment is echoed by American marine researcher Apryl DeLancey. "Keeping an otter anywhere but a rescue facility or in the wild is harmful to the animal's well-being. Period," she said, adding that they don't make particularly great pets because "they frequently wipe their feces, anal jelly and urine around to mark their territory."
She stresses that if anyone finds a wild otter in need of rescue, the person should call their local animal shelter or animal control.
Otters may be cute, but, at the end of the day, they're wild animals — whether they were bred for sale or captured from their natural habitat.
They're not meant to be pets.
Unfortunately, due to their popularity, Scientific American reported that "four Asian otter species appear to have become increasingly targeted for the illegal pet and fur trades." And, Kanitha Krishnasamy, senior program manager in southeast Asia for the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, blames social media for spurring on the otter pet trade.
All of this could lead to a dramatic drop in population numbers if poachers continue to take the otters from the wild to satiate demand. The IUCN already lists the river otter as "vulnerable" on the endangered species list.