Our Consumption of Wildness
By Gena Bentall
Sea otters in California are commonly found in heavily urbanized areas. Photo by Gena Bentall
I have many vivid memories of the stories of individual tagged wild sea otters from the thirteen years I spent tracking them every day...
The process of data collection has detachment built in—we stand on shore, 100s of meters from the sea otters we’re tracking, with high-powered telescopes that can zoom our perspective right onto the sea otter’s belly. Connecting with the same individuals every day—the goal was to resight every tagged sea otter in our study area daily—unavoidably cultivated respect and affection for sea otters as individuals. We were lucky. We could experience that intimate bond without proximity. We often joked that the sea otters had no idea of the extent to which they were being spied on. I suspect most others living on or visiting the California central coast have not had the privilege of such relationship with wildness. In fact, I suspect they’ve been starved of it.
In the early days of human development, a connection to wildness was an immersive, unavoidable part of existence. Our very survival depended upon deep understanding of nature. As civilization progressed, significant innovation was directed and distancing and protecting ourselves from the wild—housing, agriculture, the meat industry, urbanization. In the era of AI and handheld technology we may be farther from our early bonds to the plants and animalsaround us than ever before. During our current observations of humans and sea otters for Sea Otter Savvy, we often see kayakers experiencing wildlife through their smart phones. This is so frequent, in fact, we have a field on our data sheet to record it (insert graph). I often describe people as having a “screen mentality” about wildlife. For many, their only experience of wild animals has been through the screen of their television, computer, or phone and, once confronted with a real world wild creature, the view through a screen offers a sense of comfort, safety and, unfortunately, detachment.
With their combination of charisma and accessibility, sea otters are frequent targets of pursuit—usually headed their way in the form of kayakers, scuba divers, and boaters—with the goal of a photo for Instagram or that yearned for personal encounter. It has been a central mission of our organization to work within communities to reduce disturbance to sea otters caused by these frequent too-close approaches. But the chronic exposure to people can lead to what might seem at first glance to be the opposite effect—habituation--the loss of a wild animal’s natural aversion to humans, and sometimes predators in general. A quick internet search can bring up a list of viral videos of kayakers with habituated sea otters aboard their boat—celebrating the encounter, lauded and envied by followers—with no comprehension of the harmful impact of such encounters to the sea otters. How could this innocent interaction be harmful?
Direct interaction with sea otters can be dangerous to pets, people, and otters. Sea otters are carnivores with powerful jaws and sharp teeth that can inflict serious injury. Sea otters are dangerous animals and incidents of sea otter aggression towards people or pets are also likely to result in the otter being removed from the wild. Inevitably, it will be the sea otter that suffers the ramifications. Sea Otter Savvy is battling against a viral torrent of naivete cloaked as affection in discouraging these hazardous interactions.
The world witnessed a viral tsunami of another sort in the coverage or Santa Cruz’s surfboard stealing sea otter, 841, whose story has ascended to legend (and even the name of a local ice cream flavor). For me, her story has not been one of nature getting revenge on encroaching humans, but rather a cautionary tale of what our inescapable presence has diminished in these animals. In her lifetime, sea otter 841 (indicating that she is the 841st sea otter released through the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s rehabilitation program) was exposed to humans from her birth to present day. Rehabilitation, while designed to avoid habituating its customers to humans, unavoidably exposes them to the shapes, smells, sounds, and world of humans. From there 841 was released into the waters of Monterey Bay where humans are ubiquitous and escape from their presence impossible, particularly for a female who is limited to shallower waters than a larger male. Whether 841 has traits that predispose her to bold behavior we can only speculate, but the human factors—kayakers, boaters, paddleboarders, surfers—had her literally surrounded.
Once photos and videos of her hit the media, the public interest was engaged at full throttle, and the codependent relationship of information supply and demand took on a Godzilla-like stature. Like the snake ouroboros, the story consumed its own origins and induced curious 841 fans to seek out sea otters not just at her Santa Cruz home but at all our Central California coastal study sites. We recorded record disturbance during the weeks of peak media coverage. Sea otters were “in” and the moral of 841s story was lost.
Below are photgraphs taken in an afternoon overlooking Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz during the "surfing sea otter" frenzy. Top: A couple in a small boat ignores the "alert" warning behavior of the sea otter raft and eventually causes them all to dive and flee. Photo By Brad Peebler. Bottom: This photographer separated a female sea otter with a pup from the raft while taking her picture. Photo by Gena Bentall.
Habituation—the diminishing of loss of a wild animal’s aversion to humans—is tricky to define scientifically. There has been little research into the cause and effect of habituation in sea otters (graduate students in search of a thesis, drop me a note) bit it seems likely that repeated, prolonged exposure to human activities is a factor. Especially damaging are exposures that offer a resource reward like feeding and providing a kayak haul out. These same interactions are perceived as enchanting to people because they fulfill the need for that precious and rare intimate bond with nature. Unfortunately, our hunger for connection with wildlife is paired in time and space with the need of wild animals (and plants too, whose voice is even harder to hear) to have distance from us. i
We have retained the ancestral longing for wildness and perhaps perceive its absence consciously or in the form of an undefined emptiness. But we have forgotten or lost the skills needed to interact appropriately. I sometimes refer to this rare trait as “animal sense”. We as humans can learn though. And as cultures are overtaken by population growth, urban sprawl, pandemics, and addiction to technology, learning is our obligation.
My words may cast me as pessimistic, but the contrary is true. Were it not for my belief in the possibility of change, Sea Otter Savvy, and its hopeful message that the communities and neighbors of sea otters can be their heroes, could not survive. Awareness, and a willingness to adapt how we assert our place on the planet, can overtake the damage being done. I believe it must.
Let us relearn or redefine what coexistence with wildlife means in the modern world! For the sea otters of California, there is no place they can escape to be free of human proximity and the threat that inevitably imposes. Of all wild creatures, we are the ones that can make choices about how we behave. We are the ones who have the self-awareness to recognize our impacts on other species and adjust our behavior to minimize harm. Coexistence no longer has the space to be completely anthropocentric. We are not separate or above our wild neighbors, they are part of our ecology and sustainable coexistence allows all to thrive. In this ever more crowded world, we may have to find ways to feed our hunger to connect with wildness, without irretrievably consuming it.
Learn to be a good neighbor to wildlife:
Be Sea Otter Savvy: https://www.seaottersavvy.org/viewing-guidelines
National Marine Sanctuaries Wildlife Viewing Guidelines: https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/wildlife-viewing/
Respect Wildlife: https://www.respect-wildlife.org/
Gena Bentall is the Founder, Director, and Senior Scientist for Sea Otter Savvy. She has spent countless hours over more than 20 years observing sea otters and humans together in their ecosystem.