Chip the otter used to spend his days on a multi-acre property in Dulac, roaming freely through the canal, yard and home of a Dulac couple who rescued him and nursed him back to health when he was a baby.
But when Chip fell ill last week and no local veterinarian would help, Grand Caillou resident Tommy Chaisson said he drove the otter to New Orleans and left him in the care of the Audubon Zoo in hopes staff there would save his life.
Now Audubon officials say they can't return the otter to the couple or to his home in Terrebonne Parish because of strict Wildlife and Fisheries rules that bar people from keeping wild animals as pets. Chaisson and his wife, Katina Bergeron, are heartbroken and say they are fighting to get Chip back.
“This is where he's from, and this is where he belongs. He was free and happy,” Chaisson said. “He was living the life other animals dream of.”
Chip is currently in quarantine at the Audubon Zoo and seems to be in good health, said Sarah Burnette, a spokeswoman for the Audubon Institute in New Orleans.
Because the otter spent so much time with people, he likely won't be able to return to the wild, Burnette added. Audubon officials will place him with another zoo or a wildlife sanctuary where he'll be around other otters.
Burnette said the zoo sometimes acts as a “halfway house” for animals in crisis, but officials there can't make the ultimate decision about what happens to Chip.
“If anyone knows what it's like to lose your heart to an animal, it's us,” Burnette said. “We feel for this couple. But he's not our animal. He falls under the jurisdiction of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and there's a series of protocols we must follow.”
Chaisson and his wife took Chip in a year ago, after another Dulac resident found him injured and lying next to a dumpster. When no one else stepped up to help the suffering baby otter, the woman called Chaisson and Bergeron, who are known to rescue and rehabilitate domestic animals.
Chip's back legs were injured. The couple kept him warm, painstakingly bottle fed him and nursed him back to health.
As he grew and recovered, they built Chip a sleeping pen and fed him bycatch supplied by local fishermen. Chip swam in the bayou and went in and out of their home as he pleased.
“We'd take the fish and throw it in the bayou to teach him how to eat,” Chaisson said. “He was free to roam and do what he wanted to. It's not like we live in an apartment in Houma.”
The couple has dozens of photographs of the friendly otter cuddling and playing. He had become a part of the family, Chaisson said.
After Chip had been with them for some time, Chaisson said he tried to apply for a permit to keep Chip or become a wildlife rehabilitator so they could care for Chip and other injured animals. He says they got little help from Wildlife and Fisheries.
Bo Boehringer, a spokesman for the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, said the agency won't issue permits allowing residents to transport or keep wild animals like Chip.
Anyone who spots a sick or wild animal should report it to Wildlife and Fisheries. You can call the local office in Bourg at 594-4139.
If the animal is an endangered species, Wildlife and Fisheries agents will collect and care for the animal. But if it is a normal critter like an otter, Wildlife and Fisheries agents would likely direct you to a licensed animal rehabilitator.
Early last week, Chip became ill, Chaisson said. He wouldn't drink or eat and was scratching at the inside of his mouth. The concerned couple sought treatment at local veterinary offices, but no one would help.
Someone told him to take Chip to the Audubon Zoo, which he did Jan. 23. Chaisson dropped him off at the zoo entrance, and signed a paper so zoo employees could contact him later.
Burnette said what Chaisson signed was a paper surrendering Chip to the zoo's care.
“He signed a legal donation document, and we didn't have any indication that he wanted to visit the otter or take him back,” Burnette said.
Chaisson said zoo officials didn't make it clear to him what he was signing, and he was worried for Chip's life. Now he's upset because he said he's had a difficult time getting any information from the zoo or from Wildlife and Fisheries about Chip's condition or what, if anything, can be done to get the otter back home to the bayou.
Wildlife officials say Chip will be well-cared for with Audubon and wherever he may end up. Otters need the company of their own kind, and as Chip grew older he may have become more difficult to handle because otters have a tendency to bite.
But Chaisson said that Chip was a free, docile and happy otter living in his natural environment along Bayou Grand Caillou, and they couple just want to bring him home.
“This is an animal from our habitat that we keep in our habitat,” Chaisson said. “He wasn't a pet. He's not a caged animal and he's not a mean animal. As he grew, he grew to love us more and we grew to love him more.”
Nikki Buskey can be reached at 857-2205 or firstname.lastname@example.org.