In the river otter enclosure at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, feeding time is show time.
Kuuyi and Pahapi leap from rocks to trees with reckless abandon and playfully dive into the water to display the fish-catching ability that make them among nature’s greatest — not to mention most adorable — fishermen. A third, shy otter, Liwanu, is nowhere to be seen.
There used to be four otters.
Six months ago, on March 25, the otters escaped. While three were recaptured inside the zoo, one precocious young male named Kitchi, in captivity for being a “nuisance otter” in Louisiana, made it through the perimeter fence.
His escape generated plenty of media coverage, at least two Facebook fan pages and dozens of reported sightings. He was nearly caught at The Broadmoor hotel’s golf course but gave officials the slip. Tracks found a few days later provided encouragement he was alive.
But it’s been a month since anyone has called the zoo’s Kitchi hotline (648-7348) and five months since a confirmed sighting. The trail has gone ice-cold, and the question now is not “Where’s Kitchi?” but “Is Kitchi alive?”
“He was the bravest of the four. We kind of hold out hope he’s still out there and he found a good food source and he’s splashing around and having a good time,” said the zoo’s animal care manager, Roxanna Breitigan.
There is reason for hope. River otters are native to Colorado, and though extirpated here by the early 19th century, the species has proven remarkably resilient at recovery. Reintroduction efforts since the 1970s have established several healthy populations, and river otters were upgraded from “endangered” to “threatened” in Colorado in 2003.
While it has been decades since a confirmed otter sighting in the Arkansas River Basin, theoretically, Kitchi could be thriving, said Eric Odell, species conservation coordinator with Colorado Division of Wildlife.
Semi-aquatic river otters, the largest of the weasel family in Colorado at 4 feet long, once occupied every major river basin in Colorado. Unregulated trapping, pollution and habitat loss wiped them out, until reintroductions by the DOW began in 1976.
Otter populations have taken hold in the Gunnison, Piedra, Dolores and the upper Colorado rivers, as well as many tributaries. The closest reintroduction to Colorado Springs was in Cheesman Reservoir on the South Platte River, which did not take hold, though otters have been spotted in the Platte farther downriver.
The DOW encourages the public to report otter sightings, and the agency occasionally gets reports from the Arkansas Basin, but never what it considers an “A” sighting, meaning one confirmed with photos, video or tracks. Mink, beavers and muskrats often are mistaken for otters.
The Arkansas has enough fish and crayfish to support Kitchi. And otters are known to roam over long distances. Otters in Rocky Mountain National Park have ranged over 44 miles in search of food.
Kitchi would have to travel that far to get from the zoo to the Arkansas River in Pueblo, and Fountain Creek would be his highway. That creek is lower-flowing than most otter habitat, and the state lists the entire stretch below Colorado Springs as impaired for e. coli. There’s also selenium downstream, which can be toxic to birds, fish and predators.
“To get from Cheyenne Mountain Zoo through the development at The Broadmoor, into Fountain Creek to get to the Arkansas River, it’s potentially possible, but it’s not really that realistic to expect that would happen,” Odell said.
On the off-chance otters live in the basin and Kitchi made it there, the others would not let him join the family, he said. So Kitchi seems doomed to a solitary existence.
He noted the DOW has not done a comprehensive survey of otter populations since 2002, and has never performed one in the Arkansas Basin. The agency hopes to survey otters, a step toward removing them from the list of threatened species.
Could Kitchi have found a home in a Colorado Springs pond or reservoir?
“I think it’s possible,” said Steve Boyle, a Montrose biologist who has studied river otters for the U.S. Forest Service. “Otters are not bothered by human disturbance per se, as long as people are not harassing them.”
He would have to find food and avoid dogs, foxes, mountain lions and cars.
Breitigan, the zoo’s animal care manager, noted Kitchi was born in the wild, so he may have the instincts to survive.
“I think if he finds a nice pond full of fish and we don’t track him to that nice water place, he could live out a nice happy life without anybody seeing,” she said.
Zoo officials scoured Fountain Creek in the weeks after Kitchi’s escape, and while they saw no sign of the otter, there were plenty of fish.
There are no plans to replace Kitchi. The other otters are doing fine, and don’t seem to miss him, though such emotions may be beyond members of the weasel family.
Otter keeper Jessica Wildeman does.
“We think about him and hope he’s OK,” she said.
WHEN ANIMALS ESCAPE!
Kitchi is not the first critter in the Pikes Peak region whose escape has fascinated the community. Some such stories have happy endings, some not-so-happy and some, like Kitchi’s, appear destined to remain mysteries.
2009, Homer the llama: When a cougar killed its mother at a ranch on the west side of Pikes Peak last fall, a baby llama did what any sensible llama would do and escaped above treeline. There it stayed for several weeks, buzzing trains and delighting tourists. But llama enthusiasts were concerned about its health, and when the young llama saw another of its kind, it ran right up. The rescuer named him “Homer,” because he had an odyssey.
2008, The mysterious lion of Peyton: Alarm spread through the eastern plains July 14, when several people reported seeing a large animal, possibly a lion. The presence of big-cat sanctuaries in the area, and a blurry photo worthy of Bigfoot, stoked imaginations, and authorities spent all day searching. The creature was never found, and after officials confirmed no big cats were missing from sanctuaries, the search was called off. The animal has never been identified.
2007, The Teller County wolf hybrids: A handful of wolves escaped from a wolf research facility in rural Teller County by climbing a snow drift over an electrified fence and mauled a neighbor’s dog. All but one returned on its own, and the last one was caught.
2005, The west side buffaloes: On May 9, five buffaloes destined for a 21st Street slaughterhouse slipped away and proceeded to graze on west side lawns. After it appeared the buffalo were preparing to charge, Colorado Springs police officers fired, and it took 83 bullets from their semiautomatic rifles to bring them down, a shoot-out that damaged houses and caused a public-relations debacle for police. Police implemented new training and equipment afterward.
2004, The front-yard gator: May 8, a homeowner on Prairie Road woke up to a 12-foot, 550-pound alligator walking across his front yard. The alligator, brought here in a van by an Alamosa alligator rescue for an educational talk, broke the duct tape that had him hog-tied, escaped the carpet tied with 1-inch rope that he was rolled in and smashed through the van’s side window. It was caught with help from Cheyenne Mountain Zoo staff. The alligator’s name was Fluffy.
2001, The utility pole parrots: For four years, two exotic parrots lived atop a utility pole off East Costilla Street. When the lines caught their nest on fire, they built a new one. When Colorado Springs Utilities tried to catch them with a long pole, residents protested. It took Utilities workers months, but in November they managed to catch the parrots, handing them over to the zoo. Officials never learned where the parrots came from.
1998, The chamois goat: In February 1996, a chamois goat from the zoo fled into the mountains during a routine cleanup of its holding area. It took more than two years to recover the elusive animal, when someone sent a local TV station video of the goat. In March, a sharpshooter hit it with a drug-loaded dart in the foothills northwest of Colorado Springs. The 8-year-old goat was covered with ticks and a little wobbly from the tranquilizer, but otherwise fine.