LITTLE FALLS — One look into Tilly’s soft brown eyes and she melts the coldest of hearts.

The orphaned baby river otter at Pine Grove Zoo seemed oblivious to her powers of persuasion, however, as she wriggled and nudged for attention and affection from her caregivers at the zoo.

“This is the hit of the zoo,” Director Marnita Van Hoecke said near the North American river otter exhibit that features three adult otters. “Everybody spends a lot of time here because they’re busy all the time. … And they’re kind of funny little guys, they’re always doing something silly.”

Like an earless puppy with boundless enthusiasm, the ever-curious Tilly zigzagged with her stubby legs, on the constant look for adventure while exploring her new home in Little Falls.

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“The cool thing about river otters is they don’t know how to swim. They have to be taught how to swim, so I became a river otter mother and teach her how to swim,” Van Hoecke said.

Van Hoecke said she and Vicki Villebro, the zoo’s marketing director, watched videos of mother otters teaching their baby otters how to swim.

“Now, she swims like a pro,” Van Hoecke said of Tilly. “But it was kind of interesting in the beginning because she’d actually swallow water — kind of like kids learning how to swim.”

Little Falls zoo

The zoo in Morrison County features about a hundred animals, including zebras, kangaroos, emus, prairie dogs, porcupines, black bears, Siberian tigers, wolves, foxes and bobcats.

“We had a unique opportunity to get the baby river otter, so we thought it would be kind of cool to do that,” Van Hoecke said of Tilly, who was discovered at 2 days old.

Tilly came from the Wild and Free wildlife rehabilitation program in Garrison in Crow Wing County. She turned 4 months old on Sunday, July 12.

Tilly, a 4-month-old orphaned baby river otter, bounds through a grassy area Thursday, July 9, at the Pine Grove Zoo in Little Falls. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Tilly, a 4-month-old orphaned baby river otter, bounds through a grassy area Thursday, July 9, at the Pine Grove Zoo in Little Falls. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

“We’ve worked with them in the past for animals that need to be re-homed and could not be released into the wild,” Van Hoecke said of Wild and Free.

The nonprofit raised Tilly until she was about 2 months old and then released the 2-pound, 10-ounce baby otter into the care of Van Hoecke, who personally raised Tilly at home with her indifferent cats until just earlier this month.

“Once they’re raised by people, they cannot be re-released into the wild because they become attached to humans, so Tilly made her debut, here, just July 1 for the public, but she actually spent about a month in my house,” Van Hoecke said.

Last year, the zoo opened for the season in April with a ribbon-cutting ceremony for dignitaries at its new North American river otter exhibit. But this year, the tourist attraction opened two months later than usual on June 10 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“All staff have to wear masks all the time. We temp in every single day, every morning before we come to work. There’s social distancing we encourage throughout the whole zoo. … There are more hand sanitizers throughout the zoo,” Van Hoecke said.

GALLERY:

With their puppy dog eyes and facial hair, however, the playful and inquisitive river otters in the zoo aquarium easily attracted a crowd as they sliced through the water in the 8,500-gallon aquarium with grace and ease.

“She isn’t allowed yet with the adult otters because she’s still not big enough yet,” Van Hoecke said of Tilly, who weighs 8 pounds and 2 ounces. “The adults can actually hold their breath up to nine minutes underwater. She just doesn’t have that ability yet.”

Tilly lives in her own enclosed space within the eyesight of the adult otters, Ted, Dave and Dewie — two males and a female, respectively — which tend not to breed well in captivity, according to Van Hoecke.

“Starting this fall, we’ll start to introduce her to the adults, and slowly we’ll introduce them one by one. And then I’m hoping by spring she’ll be out and viewable with the public just like with the rest of them,” Van Hoecke said.

River otters

The zoo’s North American river otter exhibit is one of only two otter exhibits in the nation with a 10-foot see-through tunnel that visitors can crawl through to view the three adult otters.

“The one thing they like to do, which is kind of bad, they actually kind of like to poop on people. When the kids crawl through, they love to do that,” Van Hoecke said of the zoo’s adult otters. “But they’re very interactive. … They just love to be near the people in the tunnel.”

North American river otters are carnivorous mammals and can live between eight and nine years in the wild, and weigh between 11 and 30 pounds, according to the National Geographic Society.

“She was being bottle-fed when I got her, and then slowly but surely we introduced fish and meat, which is what their diet is. And now she does not have milk at all, she’s just fish and meat,” Van Hoecke said.

Tilly is an orphaned baby river otter and the latest addition to the Little Falls-based Pine Grove Zoo, which features three adult otters Ted, Dave and Dewie. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch
Tilly is an orphaned baby river otter and the latest addition to the Little Falls-based Pine Grove Zoo, which features three adult otters Ted, Dave and Dewie. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

The North American river otter is equally at home in the water and on land, and makes its home in a burrow near the water’s edge, according to the National Geographic Society.

“We have a little exhibit area down by the petting staple with a pool in it. And we bring her down there and then the public can see her there, so you can get within a foot of her, but you cannot pet her,” Van Hoecke said of the twice-a-day showings.

The river otter can thrive in river, lake, swamp or estuary ecosystems, according to the National Geographic Society, and otter abodes feature many tunnels, including water-accessible ones.

“Tilly is really sweet and she’s extremely social, so when the public is here, she goes right up to them, right up to the fence, because she wants to see them and she wants to be near them,” Van Hoecke said.

Tilly, a 4-month-old orphaned baby river otter, plays in a grassy area Thursday, July 9, at the Pine Grove Zoo in Little Falls. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Tilly, a 4-month-old orphaned baby river otter, plays in a grassy area Thursday, July 9, at the Pine Grove Zoo in Little Falls. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

With their webbed feet, water-repellent fur to keep them warm, and nostrils and ears that close in the water, North American river otters remain active in winter, using ice holes to surface and breathe, and propel themselves with their powerful tails and flexing their long bodies.

“They’re cute, they’re active, they’re silly, they play all the time, they wrestle around,” Van Hoecke said of the creatures. “Really, people just love otters.”

If you go

  • Where: 1200 W. Broadway, Little Falls.

  • When: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

  • Rates: $8 per person. (Ages 2 and under are free admission.)

  • Contact info: 320-616-5595 or info@pinegrovezoo.com.

  • Website: www.pinegrovezoo.com.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL.