Cook: O otter, where art thou?

Cook: O otter, where art thou?

November 10th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Pete, the beloved Tennessee Aquarium otter, is dead.

Since 2005, Pete and fellow otter Delmar -- both North American river otters, both named after a pair of endearing chain-gang escapees in the priceless Coen brothers film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" -- have charmedus like furry Audrey Hepburns. This winter, Feb. 20 to be exact, Pete would have been 9 years old.

Not since Hank the chimp has there been a more significant animal loss for our city.

If this reads like an obituary, then good. In these recession-weary days, that little critter was the ambassador of Warm and Fuzzies. He raised a paw, we melted.

"They've got those lovable furry faces," said Tennessee Aquarium spokesman Thom Benson.

He was also like an environmental mascot for our city.

"North American otters are a great conservation story," said Benson. "There was a period of time when you wouldn't have found a North American otter in Middle or East Tennessee. They were trapped out."

The aquarium announced the news Friday morning.

Trouble is, Pete's been dead for about two months.

On Sept. 3, the aquarium shipped Pete and Delmar to a wildlife rehabilitation facility in South Carolina. Waiting for them there were four other otters, a quartet the aquarium had planned on bringing back to Chattanooga after they got acclimated with Pete and Delmar.

The Pete and Delmar road-trip also gave the aquarium time to begin building its new, better-than-ever otter habitat, which is going to be similar to the penguin exhibit and should open in late April.

Back home, Chattanoogans were biding their time, waiting for the otters' return.

Welcome back otter?

Not quite.

Shortly after arriving at the South Carolina facility, Pete died. Nobody knows why. A necropsy found nothing conclusive.

Sometimes, animals die unexpectedly. Plus, Pete was pushing 9, which means he was a senior citizen in otter years.

His death should not surprise us. What does, though, is why the aquarium kept it a secret, and why, almost two weeks after Pete's death, officials led the press to believe that all was well in South Carolina and both Pete and Delmar would be returning soon.

"I wouldn't use the word secret," Benson said. "We wanted to be proactive and get this information out there."

Several things, he said, happened at once: Pete died not on aquarium grounds but two states away. The aquarium folks then began making plans to get their otters back to Chattanooga, but didn't have the facilities here to house them all, hence the trip to South Carolina to begin with.

Working with the Chattanooga Arboretum and Nature Center, they created a temporary habitat, a place that would house them all for training and assimilation (Delmar and the other four are there now).

Plus, the aquarium staff was mourning.

"You have to understand how difficult these losses are. How attached our keepers get to these animals," he said.

(Watch it, Benson. We all remember "Old Yeller.")

I think the aquarium and its staff are, and have been, an immeasurable wellspring for this city. And we're not going to turn this into Ottergate; after all, and I say this with love, Pete was technically just a weasel.

Maybe that's the point.

Pete's death reminds us how much we value our animals, how we find ways to love and embrace all these creatures great and small: the penguins, Hank, our own dogs and cats. We love them to the point of near-personification, like family members. Wet, hairy family members.

"That don't make no sense!" the chain-gang character Pete shouts in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

Of course it does. Or at least, it otter.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.