Where you can see Asian Short-Clawed Otters

In the Wild

The most likely places to see these animals in the wild are the western forests and southern marshes of Thailand, or the Kedah region of Malaysia.

In Captivity

These is a long tradition of using Small-Claws as working animals in the Far East, from China to Malaysia (Gudger (1927). These animals are still prized as fishing companions in Malaysia and Bangladesh, where a trained animal from a known pedigree can change hands for high prices - these working otters are generally from captive, working mothers, and learn their trade by swimming free whilst their mother, usually wearing a harness with a rope attached, drives fish into the nets.

On the other hand, there are reports of otters kept in Indonesian Zoos being beaten and starved to make them perform in shows.

This is by far the most common species of otter kept in captivity because it is small, and easier to manage than other otters, breeds prolifically in captivity (even if cub mortality is high), cute, and more tolerant of non-ideal conditions that other otters.

In the UK, more than 30 zoos, aquariums and wildlife parks exhibit this animal. A small selection of these is shown below, in alphabetical order.

Outside the UK, there are also many of these animals on display.

Husbandry Issues

In captivity, there are a number of important issues that need to be considered.

  1. Kidney Stones.
    In captivity, this species has been found to be particularly prone to developing kidney stones. Unrelated otters, even wild caught ones, on a wide variety of diets suffer from them, and the stones are usually too diffuse to be removeable surgically. Opinion is divided about how dangerous this is for the otters - in many cases, the kidney forms a fibrous pouch around the stone, isolating it from the rest of the kidney (Vic Simpson, 2002 pers.comm.), but in other cases a tiny stone can work its way through the kidney and into the abdominal cavity, resulting in urine leakage and peritonitis. Work is being done, especially in America, to try to find out why these stones form, and how to prevent or reduce it. It may be that since in the wild, life spans are far shorter than those in captivity, all short-claws are prone to this disorder, but it is only in captivity, where other causes of death are removed, that this one becomes noticeable.
  2. Disturbance during Breeding
    This is a common cause of cub mortality. If the parents start appearing at the den mouth with the cubs within days of birth, it is a sign that the maternity den does not have enough privacy. Ideally it should be sited away from the public - boarding up the viewing window is not sufficient. The parents are really trying to move the cubs to a safer den, but if they cannot find one, will still keep trying. People often misinterpret this as 'letting you see the babies', but in fact, it leads to cub hypothermia, disturbed feeding, and other life-threatening conditions.
  3. Pen Design
    These are the least aquatic of the otters, and most of them only want a few shallow pools to paddle in, not more than two feet deep, with shallow sloping sides for getting in and out. Since they forage by probing under rocks and in mud, they need soil, or sand, and gravel and larger stones to play with, and grass or hay to roll on for grooming. Otters kept on concrete often develop cracked pads and fungal infections; otters without enrichment become bored, obese and have health problems, often going on to develop stereotyped behaviours as coping mechanisms, including paw or tail chewing, pulling fur out, rocking and so on. Some zoos respond by overfeeding them, as obese otters visibly display these behaviours less to the public, although they are coping no better. Otters should not be skinny (if you can feel their ribs, they are too thin - otters should have a good covering of muscle), but neither should they be over-fat unless some other health or psychological problem leads them to take greater pleasure in food than a more active otter would.

Otters are above all very individual animals with distinct personalities and likes and dislikes. Many, but not all, enjoy training challenges using positive operand conditioning (Paul Bullimore at Scarborough Sea Life Centre has had a very enthusiastic response from one otter, Eric, and a much more lukewarm reaction from Cherry). For every nine otters that don't like deep water, there will be one that is a champion swimmer; for every ten nimble, athletic otters, there will be one that is sedate and staid, and prefers to sit in the sun with a full belly!

Asian Small-Clawed Otter