By Barry Kent MacKay

One night I had a dream that someone called to me, “There are otters at the bottom of the garden!”.   In my dream there was a small wetland in the back yard, below an embankment, and as I looked down I saw an otter looking up at me while her cubs played around her.   I was about to experiment with a “loose” form of oil painting, anyway, and it seemed to me that the image from my dream would make a good subject.  I was sort of aiming for the effect of images I remember seeing in my favourite children’s books, cheerful and bright but not anthropomorphic or terribly inaccurate.  I have battled more than one children’s literature editor about kids’ illustrations; in my view there is no need to “cartoonize” pictures of animals; certainly when I was very little I most loved, for example, the realistic Walter A. Weber paintings in National Geographic magazine, and the colourful but realistic images of other early to mid-20th century wildlife painters.

© Barry Kent MacKay

Also known as the Northern, North American, American, or Common Otter (there are thirteen otter species, world wide, with one, the dissimilar Sea Otter, also found in North America) River Otters were once found in nearly every river drainage, wetland and coastal region in North America except desert areas and treeless tundra.   But their fur has been greatly valued, and trapping, plus urban sprawl, toxic waste and other anthropogenic challenges have reduced or eliminated them from many regions.  Their wide distribution and the implementation of well-regulated fur trapping saved them from the fate of other species, several being endangered, and they are not only still with us, but it is my subjective impression that as fur markets apparently decline, they are increasing in numbers.  While there are no otters, or wetlands, at the bottom of my garden they have taken up residence just a short walk from my home, here in suburban Ontario. 

Otters, who are active year-round, are famous for their playfulness, and are fast, skilled underwater swimmers able to stay submerged for up to about four minutes.  They are consummate predators of aquatic organisms and may dine on birds or mammals but particularly specialize on fish, amphibians, snakes and turtles, crayfish, mussels and other invertebrates and hunt in fresh, brackish or salt water.  The River Otter descended from an ancestral Eurasian species that crossed the Bering land bridge perhaps more than a million years ago.  This species was, until recently, placed in the same genus, Lutra, as some of the Eurasian species, and that is the name you’ll see in all but the newest references, Lutra canadensis.

Fun weird fact: River Otters have asymmetrical lungs…two lobes on one side, three on the other.


River Otters males may mate with several females (polygynous).  Females delay implantation for 8 months or more, thus may not give birth until as long as a year after mating, with the usual litter size being one to three kits, but can reach five, each weighing around five ounces at birth. The painting is approximately 20 /x 16 inches, in oils on the textured side of acid-free compressed hardboard (Masonite). I’ve included a small portrait in acrylics of the same species, done in 1997.  It sold but I seem to recall it was about 9 X 12 inches on smooth Masonite.


Barry Kent MacKay, Bird Artist, Illustrator, Studio: http://www.barrykentmackay.ca,  mimus@sympatico.ca