SARASOTA -- Three 10-month-old otters have invaded Mote Aquarium as part of a new "Otter and Their Waters" exhibit opening Friday.
Huck, Pippi and Jane are North American river otters orphaned too young to survive on their own. They were raised by wildlife rehabilitators -- Pippi and Jane from the Carolinas, and Huck from the East Coast of Florida -- and arrived at Mote in December, where trainers have worked with them as the public exhibit was constructed.
"We're going to have 360-degree viewing for our guests to really immerse themselves in the watershed experience where these otters live," said Evan Barniskis, assistant vice president for Mote Aquarium. "The otters are going to be stealing the show. The exhibit is fantastic. That's where all of our hard work went into, but the playfulness of these otters, their ability to come right up to the visitor and interact with them -- it's really going to knock their socks off."
The exhibit, half on land and half in the water, has two public viewing areas. Observers can watch them at the lower level with a view underwater, or on the upper level on land, including rocks, bushes and a short water slide.
Otters are known for being extremely active, playful and charismatic, said Amanda Foltz, Mote Aquarium biologist overseeing care for the otters. Since the three at Mote were raised by people, they are used to humans and see them as "part of the group," she said.
It's important to remember they are still wild animals and can bite, she warned.
Huck, Pippi and Jane all have their own distinctive personalities. Huck is more brave and loves swimming and rolling around in the sand. Jane is hesitant and reserved, but also loves the sand and eats quickly. And Pippi doesn't like the sand, but was first to get into the water in the exhibit.
"The best part of working with the animals is figuring out their personalities," Foltz said. "You kind of have to adapt the training to each individual animal."
Each otter requires about 13 percent of their weight in food every day, which will change as they grow. Their metabolisms are about 20 percent higher than the average mammal.
"They're primarily fish eaters, so a big bulk of their diet is a variety of fish," Foltz said. "They also eat meat, so we have a feline carnivore diet that is high protein meat, and we feed them carrots, as you may have noticed. It's good foliage, it's high fiber, and the crunchy carrots help keep their teeth clean."
The otters aren't at Mote just to play. They are also undergoing training, such as responding to whistles, target training and training to more easily give them medical care.
The otters already recognize the whistle, mainly used to signal food is coming. Foltz said they're working on getting them to recognize their own names so they can be called.
Trainers work with the otters to present parts of their bodies for medical care, such as entering a crate to be weighed and getting used to being prodded.
They are also learning target practice, so the otters will move toward their own respective targets and therefore can be moved and separated when needed.
"All of our animals are trained to go to a target, which can be any object, so we can move them into separate areas," Foltz said. "And we even trained all of them to their own individual targets so we can separate them for feeding, so there's no competition for food and we can make sure they each get their allotted diet and vitamins."
Huck's target is a plush eight ball, Pippi's is a plush soccer ball and Jane's is a plush basketball.
Costs associated with the temporary exhibit came from Sarasota County tourist development tax revenues and private donations. Mote officials are not sure how long the exhibit will last. It is the fifth in Mote's special exhibit series. Otters are known to live up to 25 years in captivity.
The exhibit is housed in Mote's Ann and Alfred E. Goldstein Marine Mammal Research and Rehabilitation Center, which also houses manatees and sea turtles. The aquarium is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. You can follow her on Twitter@KateIrby