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Kayakers face terror on the river: ‘This is one renegade otter.’

By Will Kennedy, Times Staff Writer
An otter swimming in a zoo in Cleveland [Times files]

For Marsha Wikle, it should have been a typical Sunday afternoon, paddling downstream along the Braden River in Manatee County.

Wikle said she was taking in the sights, leading a kayaking excursion in a "very quiet section" of the river, when they encountered something familiar to many visiting Florida’s freshwater areas: a river otter.

But this was no ordinary otter.

The rogue — and possibly rabid — animal attacked a 77-year-old Sarasota woman. It also menaced the kayakers as they attempted to make their way on shore. And that wasn’t the only otter attack reported this weekend on the river, which is east of Interstate 75.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is investigating a second attack in which two individuals were bitten by an otter the day before, on Saturday, two miles from Wikle’s encounter.

The otter also was reported to be chasing boats and acting aggressive, according to FWC.

Sue Spector said she was kayaking with a group when the otter appeared,

"I thought ‘Oh this is a cute otter,’" she said, "and all of the sudden he jumped on the back of the kayak and lunged at me.

"Then we had this little tug of war, I tried to get him off of my kayak and I screamed extremely loud so I could try and scare him off but that didn’t work. It took some time, but I fought with him, my husband jumped in and other people came by to help."

It was the first time her kayak had ever tipped over, plunging her into the cold water "because you can’t really fight and kayak at the same time."

Wikle had to get out to help Spector and her husband, Marty, who got in the water to help his wife, back into their kayaks.

Once they were back in, Spector said, "we took off as fast as we could. The otter followed us but didn’t attack again."

As the group tried to paddle back and get Spector to a hospital, Wikle said they ran into the otter again halfway back to the launch point.

"This is one renegade otter," Wikle said. "The women in the back of the group saw him and yelled ‘he’s back’ and we just paddled like hell to get back to the launch."

She suffered injuries to her arm, nose and ear and had to see an infectious disease doctor. She is also being treated for rabies.

Nor was she the only victim Sunday. Wikle said another woman in the group was also attacked while trying to help Spector.

"There was another woman who was engaged in beating the otter (away)," Wikle said. "(The otter scratched) through two layers of clothing and she had scratches on her arms. She is also being treated for rabies."

The medical condition of Saturday’s two victims was not available Wednesday.

Witnesses also told FWC that an otter also came into contact with an alligator after the attacks on Sunday and suffered injuries.

FWC spokeswoman Melody Kilborn said a search for the otter is ongoing. Agency employees also have placed flyers at two boat ramps along the river to warn visitors of the aggressive otter.

River otter attacks are rare, Kilborn said, and no such attacks were reported last year.

Samantha Wisely, an associate professor at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, said the animal’s behavior makes rabies the most likely cause of its aggression.

"Its behavior strongly suggests it was rabid," Wisely said. "Healthy otters would never attack people."

Mike Terrell, director of husbandry for the Florida Aquarium, warned boaters to practice caution when seeing animals in the wild.

"There’s tons of great things to see out there. But regardless of the animal, you have to give them their space," Terrell said. "The biggest recommendation is if you see animals while you’re kayaking, give them their space (and) observe them from a distance.

"If they approach, go the other way."