British Columbia

There otter be a solution: Could hot dogs have saved koi from nights of 'terror'?

Could hot dogs or sardines have tipped the balance in favour of 'team koi in the life-or-death battle between a rampaging otter and a school of terrorised fish?

Documents show public was anxious to stop hungry otter from devouring Chinese garden's treasured carp

A wily river otter (most likely unrelated to the one in this picture) escaped after killing 11 valuable ornamental fish in Vancouver's Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden last November. (Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter)

They remain the great unknowns in last fall's life-and-death battle between a rampaging river otter and a beloved classical Chinese garden's school of terrorized carp.

Might a treat as simple as a hot dog have tipped the balance in favour of 'Team Koi'? Could a sardine have served as silver bullet?

Documents released under the  Freedom of Information Act reveal a variety of solutions suggested by a public fascinated with the Vancouver Park Board's attempts to catch an otter at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen garden in Chinatown last November.

"I had an otter for a pet when I lived in northern Manitoba. The one food he was absolutely crazy over was hot dog wieners," one citizen wrote to the park board commissioners.

"He would literally jump up on your lap and take the hot dog from your grip even if you were biting on it ... Put a few wieners near his den and then put several in a trap and you will catch him."

'Lucky to get out of there alive'

The collection of emails obtained by the CBC reveal both the futile fight to capture the slippery specimen killing the koi and the growing sense of dread as fish kept dropping like flies.

The park board was alerted on Nov. 18 in an email from Classical Chinese Garden executive director Vincent Kwan.

"I don't usually do this but there is an urgent matter," he wrote.

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen garden park executive director Vincent Kwan alerted the park board to the otter situation in an email on November 18. (Yvette Brend)

Kwan had just received word that a dead koi had been spotted inside a grotto during a private event.

The garden's cultural experience assistant manager said they were trying to keep people away from the scene, writing: "I didn't copy everyone, since the photo is pretty gruesome."

The park board leapt into action, but the next day the media were on the story. A third koi was eaten by the otter while a reporter from Global TV was at the garden doing an interview.

It appeared the otter had made its way into the garden through a small, unsealed red gate.

"My wife and I ran into this voracious beast on Saturday evening," one unidentified person wrote in an email that was widely forwarded among board staff.

"We were lucky to get out of there alive."

'A truly double-edged sword situation'

Park board staff assessed what they saw as four options: using electrified fencing; moving the koi to the Vancouver Aquarium; hiring a professional trapper or putting their own "coyote-sized" trap on site — which came with its own problem: "We may catch a raccoon or two."

Meanwhile, the koi kept dying and the media kept prying.

In an email to the park board's Daria Wojnarski, garden communications manager Debbie Cheung explained that Chinatown's young community members were very active on Twitter.

Koi swim in a tank at the Vancouver Aquarium in December 2018 after being removed from a pond at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in November. (Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden/Twitter)

She feared the koi would have to "endure another night of terror" as the hunt for the otter went on. She also worried about the growing bipartisan debate over the issue.

"The last thing we want to see is the public labeling both the Park Board and us favouring one animal over the other," Cheung wrote.

"This is a truly double-edged sword situation."

Beaver Be Gone

Possible solutions came in through the city's 311 contact line: "Citizen has a problem with a mink in their pond a number of years ago ... they ended up using a large bowl of sardines in the trap and caught it right away,"

That advice notwithstanding, park rangers attempted to lure the otter into the board's own traps using fish, chicken drumettes and tuna. But no dice.

They then turned to Langley-based trapper Maurice Jenkins and his business:  "Beaver Be Gone Services, Inc."

The park board set its own traps before calling Beaver Be Gone Services Inc in an attempt to trap the otter. (Vancouver Park Board)

Reached by phone, Jenkins said he didn't use hot dogs or sardines in his attempts to capture the otter. He bought a little more than $80 worth of fresh fish instead.

But the beast refused to be caged.

"The otter was gone within the day of the time that I first established bait stations and traps there," Jenkins said.

"It left of its own accord."

Otter poop?

Jenkins has years of experience outing otters and bumping beavers from places they're not wanted. As it turns out, their bathroom habits make them their own worst enemy. Otters can't resist adding their own excrement to a pile of poo, even if it's been cleverly placed near a trap.

"Normally if I'm working on a dock or someplace where an otter is causing problems because they're living there, as opposed to eating the fish, what I'll use is otter poop," he says.

"Otter poop and other excretions ... establish territory and they make communal toilets. It's a brand new outdoor toilet in a place they haven't seen one before, so they've got to use that."

A bipartisan rift divided 'team otter' from 'team koi.' Fish are expected to return to the garden park soon. The otter remains at large. (Vancouver Park Board)

Jenkins said the otter had established a toilet at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Chinese Classical Garden "but it wasn't a place where I could put a trap in because it was in among a bunch of bamboo."

A total of 11 koi fell prey to the otter before it disappeared — most likely to False Creek and English Bay. The remaining fish were relocated to the Vancouver Aquarium; they're expected to return sometime in the coming months.

A sheet of metal has been added to the lower portion of the main entrance to the garden preventing any future otter incursions. Fingers crossed, says Cheung.

"It was hard for us in the situation, because we care about the wildlife, but at the same time we also care about our koi," she says.

"It wasn't easy. We have some koi that had been with us for many years."

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.

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