Zoo conservation programs give threatened species a second chance to thrive.

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Take the absolute cuteness of a baby otter and the sheer joy of watching its antics, and multiply that by four. Add in some somersaulting, sliding, wrestling and belly-flopping and what you get is the young family of North American river otters — our native species — now at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo.

The addition of four wiggly pups — a first for this species in the zoo’s 119-year history — brings the total number of otters now living at Woodland Park Zoo’s Northern Trail habitat to seven. The fab four were born in March and were just named this month. The two boys are Tucker and Nooksack, and the two girls are Piper and Tahu. It’s not easy to tell who’s who at this point, but one hint is that Nooksak—the biggest pup — likes to follow immediately behind his mom.

Worldwide there are 13 species of otters — all of them threatened or endangered due to water pollution, overfishing and habitat destruction. Unlike the new youngsters, the three adult otters that share their habitat all have a background that includes a wildlife rescue story. That means at some point, a wildlife rehabber determined that an injured, orphaned or human-acclimated otter could not be re-released into the wild. More and more, places like Woodland Park Zoo and other accredited conservation facilities are giving animals like these a second chance to thrive in human care.

Four North American river otter pups with their mother, Valkyrie. (Woodland Park Zoo)
Four North American river otter pups with their mother, Valkyrie. (Woodland Park Zoo)

The zoo’s three resident adults are Valkyrie and Ziggy — the parents of the pups — and Duncan, the oldest of the bunch. Duncan was a rescue from Washington’s Olympic peninsula when he was a youngster and was named after one of his first caregivers. At 21, Duncan has already more than doubled the average life expectancy of a wild otter. The animal care team, including keepers and veterinary staff, are experts at making sure the special needs of geriatric animals are being met. This includes Duncan, who gets regular treatment for arthritis.

Next, there’s Ziggy, who was named after the Zigzag river and canyon in northern Oregon, where his mother was rescued. Ziggy, who will be 6 later this year, is pretty reserved and has bonded well with both other adult otters. Keepers credit Ziggy with helping Duncan to cope and rebound after the loss of his longtime female companion several years ago.

Finally, there’s new mom Valkyrie, who is 5. Both her parents were wildlife rescues and she is the dominant otter of this group. Valkyrie has a warrior spirit — very fitting given her mythological namesakes — and isn’t afraid to be assertive when she thinks it’s needed.

Like females in the wild, Valkyrie is handling all of the parenting duties on her own. Otters are not born knowing how to swim, so this first-time mom had to show her babies the ins and outs of navigating the water in their exhibit. They quickly took to it and their initial splashing and paddling have now blossomed into graceful diving and gliding through the pool.

All four pups and mom Valkyrie can be seen in their Northern Trail habitat daily between 9:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Then they rotate to a behind-the-scenes area so Ziggy and Duncan can take a turn in the big pool from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Founded in 1899, Woodland Park Zoo has sparked delight, discovery and unforgettable memories for generations of Northwest families. The Northern Trail habitat is home to grizzlies, elk, gray wolves, mountain goats and Steller’s sea eagles, as well as otters.