Last week, I was watching the great television series Planet Earth, which is the only nature documentary series that I own. As far as I’m concerned, it is the best nature documentary yet made, and I think the producers knew that when they were making it. For one thing, they paid one nature photographer for three years to get footage of the extremely rare snow leopard. And that’s just one example. A lot of money was spent on the series and got amazing video of things like a rare lion attack on an elephant, and an out-of-water great white shark attack on a seal, and a desperate polar bear attack on a walrus that left the bear mortally wounded.
What’s perhaps most amazing about the whole Planet Earth series is that the viewer doesn’t get the idea that it is good versus evil. I often found myself feeling bad for the predators as much as for the prey. For example, that polar bear only attacks the walrus because it is starving and desperate. The more you watch animals, the clearer it is just how smart they are. The bear is making a rational choice. It knows that it has little hope of success, but it has no better hand to play. And it is a tragedy, because not only does the bear die, it is very possible that the walrus’ wounds are such that it too dies.
Since I was a kid, I have been really interested in otters. They are amazing animals. And their obvious playful habits make me think of them as self-actualizing in their own way. One thing about them, though, is that most of them are solitary creatures as adults. But that’s not true of all of them. As I learned from Planet Earth, the smooth-coated otters from southern Asia live and hunt in groups. And as such, they are effectively the top predators in their environment. In the Planet Earth episode “Fresh Water” they are shown harassing a mugger crocodile away. One is even seen biting the crocodile on its tail. One of the producers talks about how they do this kind of thing all the time. Otters are seen riding on the backs of crocodiles; the otters know what the crocodiles can and can’t do. But above all, they know they are a threat that needs to be chased away. Here is some of the sequence:
That’s a triumphant bit of video: the otters chase the crocodile away; it can hunt elsewhere. The following video is rather sad. It isn’t from Planet Earth, but from another BBC series, Nature World. When the video starts, there is a problem. A caiman is blocking the entrance to a bunch of giant otters’ den. In case you don’t know, a caiman is very much like a crocodile. The big differences are that caiman are smaller, but more aggressive. Regardless: very similar and very dangerous. Here the otter children are out in the water and the adults want to get them back into the den before the caiman eats one or more of them. So just like the smooth-coated otters with the crocodile, the giant otters try to chase the caiman away. But it isn’t going anywhere. So an attack ensues that lasts over an hour, ending with a death: of the caiman. You can’t help but feel sorry for the creature. It undoubtedly felt trapped. The following video isn’t graphic, but it certainly shows the bravery and intelligence of the otters:
Clearly, otters rule! Or at least they should.
There are 13 species of otter, although one (Japanese otter) seems to be extinct. Most of the rest of threatened to one extent or another. It’s amazing that an animal that can chase away crocodiles and even kill caimans should be endangered and even extinct. But the reasons for the threats on them are all the same: humans are destroying their habitats. My sister Kim sent me an article in The Guardian, What a Population of 7 Billion People Means for the Planet. It was published two years ago with the subtitle, “With global population expected to surpass 7 billion people this year, the staggering impact on the environment is hard to ignore.” I will have more to say about how that affects humans later on today. But the effects we are having on the other beautiful creatures we live with—the only ones we know that we share this vast universe with—are just horrible. There is more than enough room and resources for all of us: human, otter, and caiman alike. But we humans insist on acting stupidly. When otters work together, they are better. But when humans work together, too often, they behave worse than they would alone. It is so sad.