On April 17, while I was on my way to release a River Otter, a reporter asked me if I ever feel sad while letting an animal go. It's a question I've been asked many times, and it's a valid one considering the charismatic nature of the animals with whom we work and the amount of time many of them spend in our care.
To be honest, sometimes the animals we receive are so adorable it seems nearly impossible that a human being could resist becoming attached to them. The otter I was releasing on April 17 is a perfect example. He came to us on May 25, 2012. He was only a few weeks old at the time, and he'd been stuck in a retaining wall for five days on the banks of Lake Union in Seattle. He was weak, dehydrated and in need of help. He was also heartbreakingly cute.
From the time the otter was admitted, we were committed to meeting his every need. He flourished under our care, growing into a sleek, sub-adult animal.
His charisma never faded. Although he no longer possessed the classic “big head/small body” cuteness of a baby, he had a very endearing personality that was hard to resist.
So was I sad when I stood on the banks of a beaver pond and watched the otter slip out of a transport carrier and into the water? The answer is an emphatic “no.”
No matter how cute and cuddly the animals with whom we work may appear, this isn't what defines them in our eyes. Our patients are first and foremost wild animals. They are independent beings with needs and behaviors inseparably tied to the habitats in which they evolved. In captivity, they can never fully express who and what they are. Their full potential can only be realized when they are set free.
Naturalist Edwin Way Teale once wrote, “Those who wish to pet and baby wild animals ‘love’ them. But those who respect their natures and wish to let them live normal lives, love them more.” I was very present with the meaning of those words as I watched the otter we had raised returning to his normal life, and what I felt in that moment was about as far from sadness as emotions can get.