TUPPER LAKE - If being the subject of a biography is an indication of fame, then The Wild Center's own Squirt the otter is officially a star.
Last weekend, the bookshelves in the museum's gift shop were stocked for the first time with "Squirt the Otter," a children's book by first-time author Tracy Mikowski.
The full-color book tells the story of Squirt's life, from her humble beginnings as an orphan discovered in a hay field by a gentle black lab to her steady climb toward becoming one of The Wild Center's most beloved denizens. The book has an educational component, too, and is filled with facts about otters.
Leah Valerio reads “Squirt the Otter” at the Wild Center’s Waterside Cafe.
(Enterprise photo — Shaun Kittle)
As the story goes, Mikowski met the charismatic mustelid while working as a zookeeper at the Clinch Park Zoo in Traverse City, Mich. One day, the zoo received a call from a farmer whose dog had found the 6-week-old otter on his property. He brought the tiny animal to Mikowski, who was in charge of the zoo's river otters.
"She was in rough shape when she came in," Mikowski said. "Her eyes were open but they were still kind of opaque, so she wasn't able to see very well. She was thin and dehydrated. She was just a little squirt."
The descriptive moniker stuck, and Mikowski began to take a liking to the newly named Squirt.
"I've taken care of a lot of wild animals, including other river otters, bats, bears, wolves, mountain lions, turtles, fish and raptors," Mikowski said. "I've loved all of them, but I love the weasels in particular because of their attitudes. Squirt's like that one dog you have that no other dog can top. She's special."
Mikowski's dog, a Welsh corgi named Muffin, agreed that this river otter was special. She and Squirt also became buddies.
When the zoo announced it was closing in 2006, the threat of homelessness once again became a part of Squirt's story. Mikowski knew she couldn't just turn her over to anybody.
"It's been a special connection with her," Mikowkski said. "It was so important to find the perfect place, the perfect person."
Zoos, including the Toronto Zoo, came calling for Squirt, but Mikowski wasn't sold on any of them. Then she learned about The Wild Center.
"When I spoke to Leah (Valerio, assistant curator at The Wild Center) they were actually building The Wild Center and just finishing up their otter exhibit," Mikowski said. "It was a perfect fit."
Now, after seven years of working with Squirt, Valerio can relate to the connection Mikowski feels with the otter because she feels it, too.
"I would also say, in my personal experience with her, that she is very sweet," Valerio said. "If you're back there and you're in a bad mood, she'll be the first otter that's right up against the pen, with her paw right there next to you. Anecdotally, to me, it seems like she follows you around, and it's very comforting."
Somehow, Squirt manages to offer that comfort without physical contact. Valerio explained that otters have sharp teeth and jaw muscles, and they do bite, even when they play with each other. That's why Valerio uses a special tool - a pole with a toothbrush attached to the end - to pet her.
"What she's deriving from the relationship, I don't know because I can't ask her," Valerio said. "She definitely really enjoys the company of people, and it makes working with her a joy."
At 12 years old, Squirt is near the end of a wild river otter's life span, but since she was raised in captivity, she might live to see 20.
"They're getting regular meals, they have regular health check-ups, the minute they show any signs of distress we call the vet, so in some respects it's easier living here with us than out in the wild," Valerio said.
If all goes as planned, those extra years will be spent in the spotlight, performing daily and maybe even doing paw-print autographs on copies of her biography. Valerio isn't worried that the fame will go to Squirt's head, though.
"She just cares about fish, really," Valerio said. "Fish are her thing."
"Squirt the Otter" can be purchased at The Wild Center's gift shop, The Wild Supply Co.
Contact Shaun Kittle at 518-891-2600 ext. 25 or firstname.lastname@example.org.