At the end of Kwina Road on Friday, Makenna Johansen opened the door of a kennel that smelled sharply of old fish.
As soon as she did, a female northern river otter sprinted out and into the water that opened into Lummi Bay, and swam off.
Then Johansen, the lead rehabilitator for the Whatcom Humane Society's Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, waited. As did Alysha Evans, the center's manager. Seconds ticked by. They waited some more.
Finally, Johansen reached into the kennel and pulled out a roughly 14-week-old baby otter. It squeaked and kept on squeaking. It pushed past her and back into the kennel, where its two siblings waited. The two women then gently tipped the kennel until all three baby otters came out.
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The young otters then swam and waddled toward a clump of plants and hid, waiting for mom.
"They'll hide and be quiet because that's what they're supposed to do," Evans said.
As Evans spoke, the female otter swam offshore and waited for the humans to leave so she could get her young.
It's been three months since someone left the mom and her babies, which also are known as North American river otters, on the front steps of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Nugents Corner. They were in what was described as a humane trap, healthy and unhurt.
But there was no information left with the wild animals.
"We don't know why," Evans said of the otters being dropped off. "We don't know where she came from."
The otter family's presence at the Whatcom Humane Society's rehabilitation center was unusual.
"As far as we know, no other wildlife rehab center in Western Washington has received a healthy mom otter and babies. Generally, centers will get either injured adults or orphaned babies," said Laura Clark, executive director for the Whatcom Humane Society.
They were dropped off in early April.
They presented a number of challenges for the center, Clark explained.
"Adult river otters are extremely dangerous, especially a mom who is protecting her babies. Adults generally require anesthesia or sedation while in care. Our center did not have that option with her as she was lactating and needed to stay with her babies," Clark said.
"Since her babies were not born here, there was a very great risk that if we tried to release them to a new site that mom would take off as she did not have an established territory, den or food site," Clark added.
Since the babies were newborns and too young to fend for themselves at the time, they would have died if orphaned.
Even if they did give her what she needed, the female river otter might still have abandoned the babies because she was stressed but not injured.
After talking to a number of centers, biologists, naturalists and the Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife, workers came up with a plan that included creating multiple den sites in an enclosed area outside the center, providing space so the mom could have distance from her babies if she needed it, and access to fresh water and food that included crabs, clams and fish — live and in their shells when possible.
Once the baby river otters could swim and feed themselves, center staff decided to release them. The female weighed 35 pounds and each offspring weighed 15 pounds.
"We were able to determine that she came from near the ocean based on the remnants of shellfish in her feces," Clark said.
River otters are seldom seen, but they're relatively common throughout the state. Their habitat include ponds, lakes and rivers as well as the open water along the coast, estuaries, bays, and in open waters along the coast.
And that's what led them to this spot on the Lummi Reservation, which included access to a nearby Lummi River as well as the ocean, where they were released on Friday.
The Whatcom Humane Society's Wildlife Rehabilitation Center cares for more than 1,600 orphaned and injured native wild animals each year from its current location at Nugents Corner. Plans are underway to build a new state-of-the-art Wildlife Rehabilitation Center on the property behind the society's animal shelter on Division Street in Bellingham.
Go to whatcomhumane.org for more information.
If you love Whatcom Wildlife
Join us in our Facebook group Whatcom Wildlife. The Bellingham Herald created this group because we know so many people love to take pictures and video of the animals around us. And while we might want to publish a photo from the site, we’ll always ask the photographer’s permission first.
Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea