A wayward Northern river otter that wandered into Don Silverman's east Medford yard Friday and ran roughshod through his koi pond earned a one-way ticket to Josephine County in this latest, strangest and almost-legal man-versus-wild case here.
The male otter somehow managed to reach Silverman's Brentwood Drive home and munch through hundreds of dollars worth of exotic Japanese carp — including a 12-pounder — before its taste for sardines led to its demise.
Silverman trapped it Saturday with the help of a licensed critter-catcher, then drove it to Grants Pass, where he released it Sunday into the Rogue River with the help of some tattooed local denizens.
"I've never heard of anything like it," Silverman says. "I'm still in shock. I've heard of bears in east Medford, bobcats, coyotes and even cougars. But not an otter."
Silverman's weekend of otter-wrangling ended well in the eyes of state wildlife biologist Rosemary Stussy because no otters were hurt or killed in the making of this story.
However, Silverman needed an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife-issued permit to transport any life wildlife, including otters, Stussy says.
Silverman would have gotten a free permit, but for release somewhere in a remote area of Jackson County and certainly not within any city limits, Stussy says.
Silverman, however, did make a good-faith attempt to get help Saturday from the ODFW biologists, whose White City office is closed on weekends, Stussy says.
"In seven years, I've never had a live trap of an otter," Stussy says. "I don't get 10 otter calls a year — certainly not from inside the city limits of east Medford.
"I'm calling it a closed case, a strange story and a happy ending," she says.
Well, except for the koi.
"I got about half as many fish now as I used to," Silverman says. "He ate the lower jaw right off one. Another has half its tail chewed off. These fish are not inexpensive."
Otters know what it's like to have their ranks thinned quickly.
Once trapped to very depressed numbers on rivers such as the Rogue, they have bounced back over time and now it is not unusual to spy them along the upper Rogue.
These members of the weasel family grow up to 41/2; feet long and up to 24 pounds and are almost always found along wooded rivers or streams, where they feed primarily on fish and other water animals. They will, however, travel long distances inland.
How this particular young male found his way to Brentwood Drive off Modoc Road is a mystery. There are no nearby creeks for transport.
The closest thing to water is the storm-drain opening in front of Silverman's house.
Silverman believes the otter somehow swam up the drain and slithered out the gate, where he was drawn to the backyard by a gurgling waterfall that happens to flop into the family's pond loaded with koi.
He found the mother lode.
That was all unbeknownst to Silverman, who awoke Friday morning and did what he always does — check the koi pond.
Something had literally scared a dozen fish right out of the pond. Smaller goldfish littered the bank, and one koi with a half-eaten tail dangling along the side.
"When you see a bunch of fish out of the water you think, 'What the heck?'" he says.
He was not thinking Lontra canadensis
Koi people are used to raccoons and the occasional great blue heron preying on their colorful carp, but those predators fish from the bank.
To scare the fish completely out of the pond, it had to be something in the water, Silverman says. But what?
Most of the fish were still alive, so he put them back in the pond.
That afternoon, Silverman looked through his kitchen window and noticed ripples on the pool's surface, yet there was no wind.
"I went outside and looked in the pool and there this guy was, in the deep end, doing the backstroke," Silverman says.
The otter dove deep, swam to the edge, leaped out and darted away.
The next morning, the otter returned for breakfast, munching the face off one koi and finishing off most of the smaller ornamental goldfish in the pond.
Silverman even spotted it in the pond before it darted away.
Minutes later, Silverman's dog started sniffing between the deck's boards and the otter kind of growled. Silverman screwed a board over the only opening beneath the deck and the otter was trapped. But getting rid of him proved even tougher.
First, he called 9-1-1, which sent him to the Oregon State Police, which sent him to the ODFW, which is closed on weekends.
So he hired a licensed critter-catcher, who set a trap at the opening and baited it with sardines. Late Saturday night, it couldn't resist the sardines and ended up caged.
"They're frighteningly ferocious," Silverman says. "They're so cute from a distance. But they'll take your finger off in an instant."
Not wanting to pay the relocation fee, Silverman drove the caged critter to Riverside Park, where a pair of sunbathers helped him send it to freedom.
Silverman says he didn't realize he needed a permit until he spoke with Stussy by telephone Tuesday. "I don't expect any repercussions," Stussy says.
Silverman still has three surviving large koi and a few smaller ones. And he's trying not to hold onto any ill will for the otter.
"I just have to tell myself that he simply found himself like a kid in a candy shop and couldn't resist," Silverman says. "I don't even want to think about how much those fish were worth."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail email@example.com.