Beer, brats and otters: A day at Ottertoberfest
“Ottertoberfest.” Think otters plus Oktoberfest. Sound like a strange idea? It definitely is. The event, which took place at the Saint Louis Zoo this past weekend, puts a spin on the classic Oktoberfest celebration. Sure, Ottertoberfest includes German beer and live music, but it also included otter-related games and activities for children (and, um, college students).
I don’t think someone can see zoos the same way after watching the 1968 version of “Planet of the Apes.” When Charlton Heston is subdued with a high-powered hose after being held in a zoo with metal bars more akin to a prison, he screams his iconic “It’s a madhouse!” We’re not meant to view this world in which the roles of ape and human are switched as one of dadaistic madness, but as a sci-fi-distorted reflection of our own reality. The whole movie (and many sequels and cyclical prequels) alters time and mutates monkeys just enough to display humanity but in converse, the effect being like hearing your recorded voice, which is always much more nasally and unprofound then you always imagine.
Now, I see most zoos as somehow inherently depressing. I think it has to do with the thinly veiled illusions to reality. Zoos market nature distilled and concentrated but inherently equal to the “real” counterparts out there. But certain inescapable factors inhibit this feeling: For example, there are no seasons in the zoo; you can walk from the penguins to the antelopes and zebras and over to tropical birds, all within 10 minutes. You always see the quiet measures taken to ensure strict boundaries: the way the okapi (like a zebra-giraffe mix) enclosure slopes down near the wall to act as a kind of empty moat barrier, the double doors to the bird enclosure that are meant to ensure that they can’t fly the coop and the Coliseum-like raised walkway around the “big cat” enclosures. The polar bear, in St. Louis climate, emerges from her wading-depth pool and eats by the thick glass wall with a sea of people gathering less than a foot away. The wet fur and slow movements make my mind free associate to the images we’ve all seen of polar bears stranded on lonely icebergs.
But of course, zoos aren’t made for sardonic college students—they’re for kids. So chill with the analysis, Sherlock. The fact is that, despite all the adult-level ill-feeling toward zoos, most kids at the Saint Louis Zoo’s Ottertoberfest were enjoying themselves in an innocent way of wonderment.
I’ve been interested in otters for years, ever since reading Gavin Maxwell’s “Ring of Bright Water.” The plot of the book and dramatized movie involves Maxwell keeping a pet otter nicknamed Mij (and isn’t that just the perfect British name for an otter?) in a picturesque cottage on the west coast of Scotland. Maxwell writes, in a romantic British way, about how he cares for his otter much like a dog. They go down to the ocean, he watches her hunt, she gets into all sorts of shenanigans around precariously placed belongings in their home—Maxwell even takes Mij aleash into quaint Scottish towns. Otters, both river and sea, are very smart animals. They like puzzles and tricks and genuinely enjoy playing in a way that any human can connect with.
But they aren’t just smart; otters are also incredibly athletic creatures. When a river otter dives underwater, it closes its ears and nose and can descend over 50 feet and travel a quarter mile at up to 18 mph. In the wild, river otters fish for sustenance, and can work in teams when doing so.
Sea otters are more traditionally adorable compared to river otters. The former are the ones you see in YouTube videos floating on their backs and holding hands while drifting asleep. But river otters are more streamlined and graceful in the water. They look almost like sea lions, twisting and turning around rocks or obstacles. In terms of gracefulness, river otters are hardly matched.
They only had two otters at the Ottertoberfest. There was one in the $4-entry Emerson Children’s Zoo.
The keepers let an old grandpa otter stay in the normal wooded enclosure, since he doesn’t leave his den except to eat. But the otter in the Children’s Zoo, putting on a show of happiness for everyone who watched, was truly wonderful to watch.
Here’s something you might not expect: otters can laugh, and they do whenever they’re enjoying themselves. Forget your harsh thoughts of the reality of the zoo, and it’s a lot of fun to watch. When an otter laughs, everyone—children, adults and myself—laugh as well.
I must remember that the point of Ottertoberfest is for the children to see real otters in their underwater glory and dance to the moderately German bands and touch faux-otter hides to feel how sleek and smooth they are (which is ironically the main reason, along with water pollution, that North American river otters nearly fell into extinction; they have only recently grown to sustainable numbers). The children were entertained with coloring and otter quiz games, and their parents could order beer and bratwursts, which weren’t anything special, even in the range of sauerkraut-laden fare, but the idea of them at least gave the parents an impression of the season.
Young adults like myself might not have much of a place at the zoo or at Ottertoberfest. One group of teens near the sea lion pools agreed that, “A real zoo would have sharks.” But for the children who haven’t seen what sci-fi suspects our zoo-keeping civilization may trigger, it is a fairly fun Ottertoberfest.
Have your own musings at Ottertoberfest at the Saint Louis Zoo on Oct. 8 and 9 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.