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otter

22 march 2011

"Otter" is an interesting word. It looks like it was formed from a verb. The similar "fisher" is an animal that fishes, and OED's best guess is that the "badger" is an animal that apparently wears a badge. But there is no verb "to ott," so otters don't go around otting.

Instead, for rather marginal creatures, otters have an extremely elemental name. They're called the same thing in most Germanic languages. Otter is as German a word as it is English. In Danish it's odder, and to make matters odder, Americans do call an otter an "odder." Similar words appear in Baltic and Slavic languages; the Latin is lutra, which just looks like it got a grammatical tag pasted on the front of a root "utr." (Hence French loutre and Italian lontra.) And all these common "utr" words seem to be cognate with the Greek word ὕδωρ ([hydor], as in "hydraulics"), which simply means (and itself is cognate with) "water." An otter is the quintessential Indo-European animal of the water.

Otters used to be pretty much everywhere in the world that one found water, so to call them "marginal" shows some 21st-century-centrism. I have never seen wild otters anywhere except California, where they are very common on some parts of the coastline, slipping around on piers and stairways like their charming little movie-star selves. Habitat decline and hunting (for fur, pest control, or sport) have decimated the ranks of the otter. (I realize I could write the same sentence without much variation for almost every other animal studied in the Reaktion Books Animal series.)

Oh yes, the Reaktion Books Animal series, since I am supposed to be reviewing one of its volumes here. Daniel Allen's Otter is an energetic, clearly-written, and thought-provoking addition to the Reaktion list. Like most of his colleagues, Allen starts with a little biology and a fair amount of comparative mythology. His later chapters are more unique to otters. He looks at the fur trade, and at otters in 20th-century British literature and film. Tarka the Otter and Ring of Bright Water, which Allen follows from page to screen, helped bring about a 180-degree reversal in British otter attitudes. Filthy sly little things that stole good fish became plucky, resourceful adventure heroes, as well as sinously cuddly companions to various eccentric English and Scottish lutraphiles.

Allen ends his book with an account of how conservation efforts have led to a recovery by Eurasian otter populations in Great Britain. (Such measures have also helped Pacific Coast otters, once nearly extinguished by fur hunters.)

But for me the most interesting, because in my case literally unheard-of, element of Allen's book is a long chapter on British otter hunting. Otter hunts, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, were organized on much the same principles as foxhunts. Local clubs contributed to the upkeep of packs of hounds. Sometimes these would be foxhounds pressed into double duty. Sometimes, to judge from Allen's illustrations, bassets and beagles and any old hunting dog would be pressed into service in otter packs, as well as terriers for those awkward moments when the otter ran into a hollow log. But British hunters also bred a long-haired water dog called an "otterhound," which I had vaguely heard of, so I must have subliminally known about otter hunts.

Early Victorian otter hunting was, frankly, weird as all hell. Horses being useless in the otter's aquatic habitat, the practice was to follow the hounds on foot. Members of the hunt carried long poles, and when an otter was trapped in a reach of water, they would stand close together in their waders and create a "stickle" or palisade of those poles so that the otter couldn't swim out between their legs. Allen includes a photograph of a stickle, and yes, it looks as insanely ridiculous as it sounds: ladies and gentlemen standing elbow-to-elbow in straw hats, poking big sticks into a creekbed.

But it gets worse. In very early times, one method of despatching the harried otter was for the master of the hunt to stab it with an otter spear. Allen includes an 1844 painting by Edwin Landseer, showing a huntsman proud of the dead otter he's waving about on the point of a massive spear.

While reading the otter-hunt chapter of Otter, I more than once suspected that the whole thing was just made up (right down to the crunchy-granola 1970s protestors holding up signs like OTTER HUNTING IS AN UNHOLY PRACTISE). But I guess reality has been stranger, down the centuries, than anything parodists could ever come up with.

Allen, Daniel. Otter. London: Reaktion, 2010.

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