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Sneak peek at Asian small-clawed otter exhibit

Posted by: Steve Sullivan, Membership and New Ventures

Asian small-clawed otters are coming to Woodland Park Zoo. Photo taken at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

On May 4, phase one of the Asian Tropical Forest initiative—Woodland Park Zoo’s most extreme makeover in the heart of the zoo since 1996—will be unveiled to the community. We’re so grateful to all of you who have made this major milestone in the More Wonder More Wild Campaign possible!

Monica Lake, capital project manager and Erik McCormick, of Turnstone Construction express our zoo’s deepest gratitude for your support! (Turnstone is a rock work subcontractor of this project’s general contractor, Berschauer Philips.) Photo by Steve Sullivan/Woodland Park Zoo.

Otterly awesome
We broke ground on the new exhibit complex in September 2012, and hundreds of you joined us. Since then, construction crews, exhibit designer Studio Hanson/Roberts and the zoo’s exhibit team have made on-time, on-budget progress toward completing a new, naturalistic exhibit for Asian small-clawed otters, a species joining the zoo family for the first time. The exhibit will also open with a nature-play area for our youngest forest adventurers and a colorful tropical forest aviary, all brought to life through generous community support. New exhibits for endangered Malayan tigers and sloth bears are planned for phase two of this ambitious exhibit complex, slated to open in 2015.

Artist’s concept rendering of a portion of the Asian small-clawed otter exhibit. Illustration by Studio Hanson/Roberts.

Going green
One of the new exhibit’s most exciting features is also one of the greenest. Taking cues from the award-winning Humboldt penguin exhibit, opened to great acclaim in 2009, the small-clawed otter pool also has been designed with sustainability in mind.

The sustainably designed exhibit is coming to life as of January, 2013. In May, visitors will enjoy multiple sightlines thanks to the exhibit’s upward slope. Photo by Steve Sullivan/Woodland Park Zoo.

The entire pool will be a closed-loop biofiltration system. Visible on the surface as a constructed wetland, it will clean and recycle pool and rain water back into the exhibit. Leveraging the earth’s natural processes this way achieves zero waste. Isn’t it great to know that your support ensures a pristine water environment for the animals and cleaner Puget Sound waterways?

Tailored to otters’ specific needs
While sustainability is crucial to our mission, there’s more to this exhibit than green design. Pat Owen, one of our zoo’s collection managers, reminds us that providing our animals a full slate of choices for natural behavior is among our highest priorities. He helped the exhibit team tailor design choices to small-clawed otters’ specific needs. They will enjoy an enriching topography that integrates a waterfall, rocky outcroppings and, of course, the wetlands.

L-R: Ty Castle and Neil Harrison, of Turnstone Construction Inc., brave January’s winter air to build the otters’ cozy, heated dens into the naturalistic exhibit. Photo by Steve Sullivan/Woodland Park Zoo.

Although highly social and gregarious, the otters also need good alone time. Burrowing areas and cozy, heated dens built into the structure will provide for that. And thanks to its gradual slope upwards,guests of all ages and heights will be able to get up close and appreciate the otters’ natural behaviors: playing, grooming, foraging in the wetland mud and, eventually, raising their young.

A mating pair will call the exhibit home initially, but we hope they will soon expand their family with baby otters. To fulfill Species Survival Plan recommendations to breed the pair, the exhibit design team included features that cater to raising a family and growing old together. What we learn about this species’ reproduction, family dynamics and behavior will also help conservationists working to save small-clawed otters in the wild.

Illustration of the full 2-acre, multispecies exhibit complex by Studio Hanson/Roberts.

A naturalistic wonder
Thank you again for helping us bring this multispecies exhibit complex to life for the entire community. In May, when you experience the wonder of the small-clawed otters, you’ll know that connecting to protect this and other Asian tropical forest wildlife, such as tigers and sloth bears, is a true zoo-community accomplishment. That’s pretty awesome.

Malayan tiger. Photo by Melinda Arnold/Dickerson Park Zoo.

Stay tuned for future posts showing progress on the aviary and the kids’ nature-play area. Until then, learn more about phase two exhibits for Malayan tigers and sloth bears, a new Conservation Action Center, and how you can get involved at

About Asian small-clawed otters
Aonyx cinerea
Conservation status: Vulnerable

Photo by Fred Cate/Indianapolis Zoo.

1. They are the smallest species of otter in the world (average length 3.3 feet).
2. More terrestrial than other otter species, they spend much time in or near remote swamps and freshwater wetlands of Peninsular Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, southern India, China, Taiwan and the Philippines.
3. Sleek bodies, strong tails and partially webbed feet make them superb swimmers and aquatic hunters, diving underwater for up to six minutes.
4. To catch small fish and insects, crabs, frogs, snakes and rodents, they use their forepaws with finger-like dexterity and coordination; their short claws never extend past their paw pads.
5. Mates for life, they have up to two litters a year; pups remain with their mothers until another litter is born.
6. To communicate, they use 12 different vocalizations, scent mark with glandular spraint and make “sign heaps” out of sand, mud or gravel to signal their territory.
7. Their life expectancy is 10-15 years in the wild; they can live more than 20 years in zoological parks.


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