MICHELE NORRIS, host:
As children, we're often told not to touch, pet or generally pester wild animals. They can bite, you know. That's what commentator Julie Zickefoose tells her kids, but she admits that she often ignores her own best advice. At a recent trip to Guyana, on the north coast of South America, was exciting enough to leave a scar.
JULIE ZICKEFOOSE: I have always had a thing for otters. Their sinuous bodies, topped by a flat head with tiny ears, googly eyes and a broad built-in smile, satisfies something in my soul. The Grail of otters is the giant otter. Fewer than 5,000 still exist, most of them on the northeast coast of South America. Needless to say, I never thought I would get to see, much less, touch a giant Amazon otter anywhere, anyhow, anytime.
But I found my way to Guyana on a bird-watching trip and a Karanambu Ranch on the Rupununi River, and somewhere in all those lovely, rolling vowels, there lives a woman named Diane McTurk, who raises and releases orphaned giant otters.
It is the labor of Sisyphus to raise a highly social, aquatic, muscular and occasionally dangerous animal to release age, and Diane had my instant respect. I watched her as she knelt by the river's edge, caressing one of the orphaned otters, and I knew I had to touch that animal, too.
Because my curiosity and affection for animals almost always overrides my fear, I tussled with the otter as she did, petting and playing with him. I adored messing with that animal. The only problem being: Though hand-raised, it was still a wild animal. I tell my kids never to touch a wild animal.
At one point, the giant otter paused in his lolling around, raised his head and stared briefly at me in what I realized too late was a direct threat. A lightning fast one, but a warning.
I was squatting next to him, tousling his silky fur and suddenly sensing that he was displeased, I withdrew my hand and pulled both arms in close to my body, but it was too late. His big, flat head lashed out like a snake's, and those fearsome jaws closed around my right wrist.
His mouth was a spiked vise, and the pressure from one canine broke the skin through the double cuff of my nylon shirt. In the spectrum of otter bites, I'm sure what I'd just gotten was a warning nip. The pressure was nevertheless bruising, tremendous.
These things grow to 6 feet and 70 pounds, chew the heads off live piranhas, open up turtles with those jaws. I recalled, a bit too late, the factoid that otters, as a group, bite their keepers more than any other zoo animal.
I was glad that no direct contact had been made between his tooth and my skin, glad that I'd made it a point to wear long sleeves even in the suffocating heat. Inspired by the event, I have drawn up a list of insects, reptiles, birds and mammals that have bitten me in my 50 years: 75 species and counting. Amazon giant otter — that one gets a gold star.
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NORRIS: Commentator Julie Zickefoose is safely ensconced at home on her 80-acre nature preserve in southeast Ohio, where she draws, paints and writes about animals. She's the author of "Letters from Eden: A Year at Home in the Woods." To comment on this essay, go to the opinion section of NPR.org.
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