Historical References to Otters around the World

Prehistory For as long as there have been men and otters, men have hunted otters for their skins.
2300 BC Otter pictured in bas-relief in the Mastaba of Mereruka, Saqqara, 6th Dynasty c. 2300 BCE (thanks to Joseph A.Davis for the photograph).
Otter on tomb relief, Mastaba of Mereruka;
Saqqara, Egypt,6th Dynasty c. 2300 BCE
1500 BC Sea Otters (Enhydra lutris became the most important sea mammals for the peoples of the Pacific Northwest of America. They provided furs, hides, bones for tools, and teeth to use as studs on bentwood boxes and other decorative items. Ames & Maschner (1999)
1000 BC The burnt bones of Sea Otters (Enhydra lutris) are found in middens in California, but the level of hunting probably had little impact on numbers. Harris (1968)
500 BC On Amchitka Island, Aleut middens show intense but localized use of Sea Otters (Enhydra lutris), probably resulting in local extinctions. Harris (1968)
75 to 79 AD In his "Natural History", Pliny the Elder classified otters as beavers!
200 AD Some settlements in the Pacific Northwest of America were abandoned due to over-exploitation of sea otters. Ames & Maschner (1999)
600-900 AD Tang Dynasty writer Chang Tsu says there are many fishermen in Szechwan who rear otters to catch fish for them. Gudger (1927)
700 AD Life of Saint Cuthbert by the Venerable Bede: "He was in the habit of rising at the dead of night, while everyone else was sleeping, to go out and pray, returning just in time for morning prayers. One night one of the monks watched him creep out, then followed him stealthily to see where he was going and what he was about. Down he went towards the beach beneath the monastery and out into the sea until he was up to his arms and neck in deep water. The splash of the waves accompanied his vigil throughout the dark hours of the night. At daybreak he came out, knelt down on the sand, and prayed. Then two otters bounded out of the water, stretched themselves out before him, warmed his feet with their breath, and tried to dry him on their fur. They finished, received his blessing, and slipped back to their watery home. He was soon home and was in choir at the proper time with the rest of the monks." (Thanks to David Brear, who brought this to my attention).
c. 800 AD In northern Alaska, a bone figurine 14cm long dating from the Ipiutak stage of the Norton tradition represents a fusion of human and sea otter, probably a shaman. Dumond (1987)
860 AD Chinese writer Twan Cheng-shi states that there lived in Hu pei a 70-year old man who had raised 10 otters for catching fish. Gudger (1927)
12th Century The first pack of Otter hounds was recorded in Britain. Chanin(1985)
1323 Friar Odoric of Pordenone was in China 1323-28, and saw both fishing with cormorants and with otters in the area of the Yangtze River. Gudger (1927)
1408 In Ireland, John, son of Dermott, had to produce 164 otter skins for King Henry IV (of England) in arrears of rent. Chanin(1985)
1480 Early European encyclopaedias state that otters are tamed by fishermen to drive fish into nets. Gudger (1927)
1555 Olaus Magnus says "But in Sweden with some great men they [otters] are made so tame, that when the cook gives them the sign, they will hop into the fish-pond, and bring forth a Fish of that bigness he commands them; and then another, and a third, until he hath done enough as he was bid." Gudger (1927) also gives a copy of the charming picture by Magnus of this scene.
1566 The "Acte for the Preservation of Grayne" was passed in England, allowing Parish Constables and Church Wardens to set bounties on otters and other pests. Chanin(1985)
End 16th Century Li Shi-chen, a Chinese writer, records that tame otters are commonly kept for fishing in Szechwan and Shen-si. Gudger (1927)
1602 In Carew's "Survey of Cornwall" he says that otters "...make bold now and then to visite the land, and to breake their fast upon the good man's lambs, or on the good wives pultrie..." Harris (1968)
1618 In Britain, the official records of the Pell Office show a payment of 66,13s.,4d. on 10th October to Robert Wood, "Keeper of his majesty's [James I's] cormorants, ospreys and otters" for making fish ponds and for building a house to keep the fishing animals in. Gudger (1927)
1648 The first account of the Brazilian Giant Otter, Pteronura brasiliensis, by G. Marcgrave, though he might have confused it with the Tayra (Galera barbara). Harris (1968)
mid 17th Century In the memoirs of Jan Chryzostom Pasek, the Polish country landowner, he tells how he gave his pet otter, "Worm", to King Jan III Sobieski of Poland. The King loved the otter and looked after him. Unfortunately one night, Worm went for a walk, and some soldiers, not knowing he was the King's otter, shot him and had his skin cured. When the King found out, he was so angry he put the soldiers and the tanner into a prison tower (thanks to Karina Chruszcz for this story).
1653 In the famous English fisherman Izaak Walton's "Compleat Angler", mention is made of taking an otter cub to train for fishing as "an ingenious gentleman in Leicestershire" had done. Gudger (1927)
1703 Trained fishing otters in the Hebrides (in Scotland) are mentioned by one Martin Martin. Gudger (1927)
1737 The Sea Otter, Enhydra lutris, was first seen by a European, Padre Taraval, on Cedros Island. Harris (1968)
1751 Steller published his account of the first European expedition to Alaska, in which he described the Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris). Not only did he say it was there in huge numbers, and easy to kill, but that it had wonderful fur and also that young sea otter tasted delicious. Harris (1968)
1755 AD Johannes Low published a training manual for Swedish fishing otters. Gudger (1927)
1758 Linnaeus classified the Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris) and the Giant Otter (Pteronura brasiliensis) as one and the same animal because they were the same size... Harris (1968)
1776 The North American River Otter, Lontra canadensis, was first scientifically described (as Mustela lutra canadensis) by J.C.D. Schreber. Harris (1968)
1779 AD In England, the poet, Oliver Goldsmith, published a work on Natural History that includes otter training, and says, "I have seen one of these [trained otters] go into a gentleman's pond at the word of command, drive up the fish into a corner, and seizing upon the largest of the whole, bring it off, in its mouth, to its master." Gudger (1927)
1782 The Marine Otter, Lontra felina, first scientifically described by G.I. Molina (as Mustela felina). Harris (1968)
1784 The Asian Short-Clawed Otter (Amblonyx cinereus) was first described by F. Wurmb as "Grijze Otter". Harris (1968)
1788 The first scientific and generally reliable description of the Giant Otter of Brazil, Pteronura brasiliensis, by J.F. Gmelin (as Mustela lutris brasiliensis) - for such a distinctive animal there was a lot of confusion about its identity! Harris (1968)
1792 The large-scale slaughter of Sea Otters (Enhydra lutris) for furs began. The exploration of the entire North Pacific was in many ways fuelled by the fur trade, Sea Otters being particularly valuable. Ames & Maschner (1999)
19th Century There are many accounts of trained otters in the Yangtze region of China. Some are muzzled for work, some collared, some are free. They drive the fish into the nets, and some come up inside the net, and some outside. All are described as gentle and tame and well cared for. Gudger (1927)
1811 The Indian Smooth-Coated Otter, Lutrogale perspicillata, first scientifically described by W. Marsden (as Mustela lutra). Harris (1968)
1818 The Neotropical Otter, Lontra longicauda, was first scientifically described (as Lutra longicauda) by I.V. Olfers. Harris (1968)
1821 The Cape Clawless Otter, Aonyx capensis, was first scientifically described (as Lutra capensis) by H.R. Schinz. Harris (1968)
1822 The Sumatran Hairy-Nosed Otter, Lutra sumatrana, was first scientifically described (as "Barang") by T.S. Raffles. Harris (1968)
1835 The Spotted-Necked Otter, Lutra maculicollis, first scientifically described by K.M.H. Lichtenstein. Harris (1968)
1846 The first Eurasian Otters (Lutra lutra) bred at London Zoo. Harris (1968)
1847 The Southern River Otter, Lontra provocax, was first scientifically described (as Lutra huidobria) by C. Gay. Harris (1968)
1861 In Britain, a correspondent to The Field pointed out that the diminution in the number of otters in the steams of the North Riding of Yorkshire had resulted in fewer trout and more eels and coarse fish. Harris (1968)
1870 Robert Swinhoe records that about 1000 miles up the Yangtze River they came across a fisherman with a very tame and gentle otter. The fisherman would throw his large, loose net, which was weighted at the edges, and then let the otter (which was tethered on a long string) into the water to drive fish under the net, which would be contracted to trap them. Gudger (1927)
1873 In Britain, a correspondent to The Field wrote that "Some years ago a fishing club took a length of river. They 'put on' keepers who killed the otters.... In four years the river was full of pike and shoals of coarse fish might be seen on the gravel beds, feeding voraciously on the trout spawn." Harris (1968)
1881 The Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm, travelling in eastern North America says of the otter "I have seen some that were as tame as dogs, and followed their masters wherever they went...". Gudger (1927)
1892 The last remaining Sea Otter, Enhydra lutris, was shot in the Pribilof Islands. Harris (1968)
1910 The Congo Clawless Otter, Aonyx congicus, was first scientifically described (as Aonyx capensis congica) by E. Lonnberg. Harris (1968)
1911 The Sea Otter, Enhydra lutris, was accidentally included in the Fur Seal Treaty, which protected fur seals. At this time, there were estimated to be only 500 to 1000 Sea Otters left in the whole world, so this was the point at which they were almost wiped out. Harris (1968)
1922 A Mr Foster mentions a Peruvian man who had obtained a tame otter with the intention of training it to fish for him. Gudger (1927)
1925 North American River Otters (Lontra canadensis) were legally protected in Manitoba. This was repealed in the 1940s. Harris (1968)
1937 The Russians attempted to transplant Sea Otters (Enhydra lutris) from the North Pacific to the Murmansk coast of the Kola Peninsula. Two of the otters survived the journey. "It would be interesting to know for how long these Russian experiments continued and to what degree they were successful." Harris (1968)
1946 In Britain, Mr B. Vesey-Fitzgerald, in British Game said that the otter "...is not the menace on a salmon river that it used to be thought. Does not merit the serious consideration of the game preserver.". This is after the Second World War, when due to the lack of keepers and less otter-hunting, otter numbers had significantly recovered since the early years of the century. Harris (1968)
1948 In North America, F.G. Ashbrooke reports an unsuccessful attempt to farm the North American River Otter (Lontra canadensis) for fur. This was probably because of their slow rate of reproduction and greater need for space than, for example, mink. Harris (1968)
1949 North American River Otters (Lontra canadensis) received legal protection in Montana. Harris (1968)
1950s British Otter numbers began their drastic decline that led to their extinction over much of the country by the 1970s. Chanin(1985)
1959 O.J. Murie reported that the Japanese were believed to be managing Sea Otters (Enhydra lutris) commercially in the Kurile Islands, Harris (1968)
1968 The Eurasian Otter, Lutra lutra, received full legal protection in Sweden. Chanin (1985)
1978 In England and Wales, under an extension of the 1975 Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act, it became illegal to catch or kill an otter or attempt to do so. Chanin(1985)
1982 The Wildlife and Countryside Act extended the otter's protection to Scotland. Throughout mainland Britain it became illegal to catch or kill an otter, or disturb or destroy its dens. Chanin(1985)
1988 The Eurasian Otter, Lutra lutra, disappeared from The Netherlands. Kruuk (1995)
1989 In Rwanda, A. LeJeune reported that the Spotted Necked Otter, Lutra maculicollis, took an estimated one-seventh of the local fishermen's catch, by tearing nets. Kruuk (1995)