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Zoo Otter Snatched in After-Hours Break-In
Rick DelVecchio, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 7, 2000
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle


OAKLAND -- Harriet the river otter is in mortal danger unless the thieves who snatched her from her watery pen at the Oakland Zoo return her to her keepers, distraught zoo officials said yesterday.

The 20-pound mammal was taken from the children's section of the zoo Monday night or early yesterday, officials said, and her abductors apparently stuffed her into a carrier of the kind used to take dogs and cats to the vet.

The outlook is also bleak for Harriet's 10-month-old baby, who is totally dependent on her mom for care and feeding and, typical of her species, does not respond to human handouts or cuddling.

``There's a lot of crying and looking around,'' assistant zoo director Allison Lindquist said of the baby otter, the sole offspring of Harriet and her partner.

Harriet's mate and the baby's father, Ozzie, is also showing signs of being upset as he paddles about in one of the zoo's most popular attractions.

The zoo posted a $1,000 reward for information leading to Harriet's safe return -- an amount increased last night to $6,000 by two anonymous donors alarmed when they heard the news on the radio.

The 15-year-old female otter, who is 2 1/2 feet long, came to Oakland from a Minnesota zoo in 1987.

The thieves entered the zoo grounds from the 98th Avenue main entrance sometime after the zoo closed Monday, opened two security gates with bolt-cutters and leaped a fence into the children's section, which houses many sheep and goats as well as alligators, Lindquist said.

Once inside, the abductors broke into an equipment shed, where they took the animal carrier -- and then Harriet.

Lindquist believes the crime was opportunistic. She thinks the thieves intended only minor mischief when they broke in.

But Pat Derby, founder and director of the Galt-based Performing Animal Welfare Society, said people have been known to take captive animals as exotic pets.

``It's a horror story when people do that kind of vandalism because it puts the animal's life at risk,'' Derby said. ``Private people are not capable of caring for these animals. It sounds like somebody wanted one for a pet.''

The North American river otters and meerkats are the biggest hits among the 380-animal zoo's small fauna because of their gregariousness and their seeming pet-like adorableness.

But while cute, the sleek mammals, who live in North American rivers, have sharp teeth and claws to tear at fish and the occasional rodent.

``Who would pick an otter?'' Lindquist asked. ``They're pretty tough. I suspect whoever got her probably has some battle scars.''

She hopes Harriet will leave clues for an alert informant.

``Perhaps their neighbor came home with a funky new pet today, or heard some strange barking noises,'' Lindquist said.

Keepers found Harriet missing early yesterday and reported the theft to the Oakland police. The break-in and abduction was the zoo's first since somebody took a pair of macaws about 10 years ago, and it was even more upsetting because of Harriet's sensitive health requirements.

Harriet, who has coarse, dark- brown fur on her back and a white belly, must eat special food and vitamins to control her high metabolism. Only her keepers know how to prepare the diet and a civilian would never get it right, Lindquist said.

All river otters, who are pint-sized cousins of the sea otters that live off the California coast, need to live near water and need to be able to choose when to get in and out of it. Otters spend two-thirds of their time on land, grooming their fur to keep air bubbles trapped in it for the insulation they need to survive underwater.

The theft is the latest of a number of incidents involving zoo animals in recent years. In 1997, the San Francisco Zoo recovered a caiman more than two months after the alligator-like reptile disappeared. He was found with a rope around his neck, tied to pole in a San Jose park.

In 1995, vandals stole, harassed and hurt animals in a series of attacks at Children's Fairyland in Oakland.

©2000 San Francisco Chronicle   Page A1