Is it ethical to make an otter squeeze your finger in exchange for some fish? While it might not be among the most burning questions of our day, there is something about the image that just doesn’t sit right for many people.
People love to touch animals, and petting zoos have been around for centuries. But most petting-zoo animals are domesticated: horses, sheep, goats, pigs, birds, etc. And while places like SeaWorld do permit guests to touch certain fish, such as rays, very rarely are people allowed to come in contact with a wild, possibly aggressive, possibly disease-carrying mammal.
Apparently, the managers of Tokyo’s Keikyu Aburatsubo Marine Park are unfettered by any concerns over ethics or safety. From now until September 13, for 500 yen each—about $5 USD—park guests can book time to shake hands with an Asian small-clawed otter, the world’s smallest (and arguably most adorable), at just 11 pounds.
For the odd little spectacle, called “Otter Finger Touch, Fish Catch,” the park installed holes in the glass making up the otters’ enclosure.
“By holding out the great scent of Wakasagi Smelt you can entice an otter to the glass were it will reach out through the hole and grab your finger,” gushed an article in the English-language publication Japan Today.
“It’s like visiting the cutest prison or off-track betting parlor in the universe!”
And that’s just the point. There is nothing “cute” about prison, and otters have no place in betting parlors. Meanwhile, why should any wild animal have to squeeze a human finger exchange for some smelt?
“This is just another way that we intrude on the dignity of other species to fulfill our personal longing for some connection with nature,” Samantha Berg tells TakePart. She's a former SeaWorld Florida trainer who figures prominently in my book, Death at SeaWorld, and the new documentary Blackfish. Berg worked for a year at Sea Lion and Otter stadium, including with Asian small-clawed otters.
“Until we see the wrong in this, there will always be a commercial entity ready to exploit that desire,” Berg continues. “But when exploitation is involved it never feels right on a deep level, and it's high time that we all respond to our conscience.”
Then there’s the safety issue: Otters bite.
Asian small-clawed otters prey mostly on mussels, snails, and crabs—their teeth are sharp and their jaws like small sledgehammers.
In Death at SeaWorld, I describe the perilous work performed by staff at Orlando’s Sea Lion and Otter stadium, including one incident when trainer John Jett “was bitten by an otter—a painful laceration on his leg—and he often became uneasy around the other animals.”
Of course, the glass at this park protects guests from an all-out otter assault, but it still seems unwise to offer your finger to a wild carnivore. “Otter Finger Touch, Fish Catch,” would probably not happen in this country, given the guidelines handed down by the Associations of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).
“In general, due to the potential for bites, small carnivores should be used in contact areas only with extreme caution,” the AZA guidelines say. “All carnivores should be tested for and be free of zoonotic species of roundworms such as Baylascaris sp. Small carnivores obtained from the wild may present a greater risk of rabies and their use should be avoided in contact areas.”
Risk of disease transmission, of course, “can be markedly reduced by avoiding direct animal contact,” the AZA says. “However, this forgoes many valuable educational experiences and the establishment of a direct relationship between animals and the public.”
One “reasonable alternative” is hand washing. “All areas in which the public has direct contact with animals should have access to hand washing facilities that are in the immediate vicinity of the contact (or an equivalent, e.g., bacteriocidal hand-wipes),” the AZA advises.
It’s not clear if hand-wipes are available at Keikyu Aburatsubo Marine Park or not. But then again, the risk is not just from pathogens, it’s from those crab-cracking teeth.
What is there to stop an otter from biting the hand that feeds it?
As one commenter at the Japan Today website put it: “Mark my words...someone's going have their finger bitten off; poking their finger through that hole.”