Chattanooga's Tennessee Aquarium misled media on Pete the otter's death

Chattanooga's Tennessee Aquarium misled media on Pete the otter's death

November 9th, 2013 by Barry Courter in Local Regional News

TIMELINE OF EVENTS

Sept. 3: Otters Pete and Delmar are moved to the South Carolina facility.

Sept. 5: Pete dies.

Sept. 17: Aquarium spokesman Thom Benson tells the Chattanooga Times Free Press that both otters had been moved and were being acclimated with the four new otters.

Nov. 8: Benson announces Pete's death.

OTTER EXHIBIT EXPANSION

• Opening: Scheduled for April 2014

• Cost: $1.5 million

• Number of otters: Six

• Features: Several levels of land for the otters to explore, long pool with two waterfalls, and the ability to increase or decrease water flow to create new experiences for the otters

• Exhibit space for otters: Increases from 481 square feet to 1,465 square feet

• Exhibit space for guests: Increases from 180 square feet to 420 square feet (For comparison, Penguins' Rock has 405 square feet for guests.)

• Acrylic viewing space: Increases from 13 linear feet to 32 linear feet

• Backup space for otter care: Increases from 100 square feet to 406 square feet

Source: Tennessee Aquarium

An otter plays in its enclosure at Reflection Riding. Five otters are being kept and trained in those facilities before they are moved to the Tennessee Aquarium after a remodeling.

Photo by Maura Friedman/Times Free Press.

Pete, one of the resident otters at the Tennessee Aquarium, died two months ago, a few days after being transported to a temporary training facility while a new exhibit is being built, spokesman Thom Benson said.

In making the announcement Friday, Benson acknowledged that he knew of the death at the time he was telling the media that both Pete and a second otter, Delmar, had been moved to a private wildlife rehabilitation facility in South Carolina for acclimation and training with four other otters that would be part of the new, larger Tennessee Aquarium exhibit.

Delmar and the four other otters now are at the Chattanooga Arboretum and Nature Center where they are being cared for and trained by aquarium staff, Benson said. They are being taught cues and behaviors, such as raising a paw on cue, that will be showcased when the new exhibit opens. The schedule now calls for a late-April debut.

Benson said the aquarium delayed going public with the news of Pete's death in order to have a necropsy performed and to decide how to care for the five remaining otters. He said the necropsy tests were inconclusive and no cause of death has been determined.

Steve Feldman, a spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, said it is not unusual to withhold news of an animal death until a necropsy has been performed, or not to release the information at all.

"It's the circle of life," he said. "Animals are born and animals die. There is also the news judgment of when do you make a death known. It is not uncommon. It is something that happens in nature."

Benson said Friday that the otters were moved to the South Carolina facility Sept. 3 "and both were fine."

"X-rays and tests were done. They were eating and vigorous, and within a couple of days he went downhill and died," Benson said.

On Sept. 17, Benson told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that both otters had been moved and were being acclimated with the four new otters as work began on the new exhibit.

The otters, including a brother-sister pair, were moved to the Nature Center a week ago.

"After losing Pete, we stepped back to re-examine our interim plans," Jackson Andrews, director of husbandry and operations, said in a release from the aquarium.

"It became apparent that we wouldn't be able to work from a remote location and still accomplish all of the husbandry goals necessary to open the new exhibit."

Nature Center Executive Director Jean Lomino said the facility has had a working relationship with the aquarium for years. She said aquarium staff has been entirely responsible for creating the living quarters for the otters and for their care.

"We are just providing the location," she said.

The life expectancy for river otters is about 9 years in the wild and about 12.5 in captivity. Pete, who was an orphan when the aquarium got him almost eight years ago, was around 9 years old, according to Benson.

Benson apologized for not being forthcoming with the news of Pete's death, but said aquarium officials felt it was best to have a plan in place before going public with the news.

"This is the first time we've had something like this happen off site," Benson said. "We felt we needed time to get the test results and to get a plan in place. We wanted to get everything together, otherwise there would have been all kinds of other questions.

"It's heartbreaking, especially for those trainers and the people who transported Pete and Delmar."

Contact staff writer Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.