There have been only two studies of North American river otter vocalizations, both mentioning 12 different calls: the whine, chirp, grunt, blow, chatter, creek, squeak, scream, hiss, swish, hiccup, and whistle. You can see a description of each one in the studies listed in “Sources” below. I was struck by the fact that neither the name nor description of any of those sounds matches what I hear most commonly from wild otters playing, scent marking, and grooming at latrines, as recorded by my trail cameras.

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That common sound is an almost continuous, pulsed, low pitched vocalization that I think of as a buzzy grunt. I’ve also witnessed its use in person by otters swimming together. However, I have never heard it used by lone otters. To hear this sound – the buzzy grunt not mentioned in the two studies – watch the video below with the volume turned up. You will also hear some chirps, and maybe a couple of other distinct but less common otter sounds.

I was curious as to why nothing matching the description of that buzzy sound was mentioned in either study of river otter vocalizations, so I contacted the author of one of them. Naturalist Sarah Walkley said that the sound to which I was referring is usually called a chuckle, coo, hum, or purr and considered to be an “affiliative / all is well” call. Ah. It means “here I am with my friends, feeling good”. A sound of contentment. That fits perfectly with my own observations, and “purr”, to choose from among Walkley’s labels, is a good word for it. It sounds a little like a cat purring, and a bit like a ferret “dooking” (google that one).

Walkley explained that she did not mention purring in her paper because it was used very rarely by her study subjects, two groups of captive otters. I suspect it was not mentioned in the other study (also involving only captive otters) for the same reason, though I did not contact the author to ask.

So why am I making an issue about this purr? One reason is that once you recognize it, that sound might cue you in to the presence of otters when you’re out hiking near a water body. It can help you find otters. The other reason is that it may be telling – in a sad way – that this common sound of contentment was rarely heard in the captive otters studied.

So often we humans assume that because zoo animals are well fed and safe, they must be happy. Not necessarily so. For all we know, many of them could be bored out of their minds. Perhaps they long for freedom, the chance to explore, the challenge of foraging for their own food, of finding their own mates, of establishing and defending a territory. As fairly large and intelligent creatures, otters need space and stimulation, perhaps more than can be provided in zoos.

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We don’t know. I do know even as a child I never enjoyed zoos. They look like prisons to me.