WPO History & Happenings

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Submitted by the Wetlands Preservation Organization

Construction of the South Lawrence Trafficway began over the spring break while most students were out of town. The morning before the bulldozers arrived we found a female otter run over in the middle of 31st Street. She was only a short distance from the kiosk Haskell students and community supporters have been working on for the past several years. Her body was still wet and warm. We couldn’t let this beautiful creature lie in the roadway to be repeatedly smashed by the commuter traffic that would pass this way shortly.

There was a perfect silhouette of her body left by her dark wet fur. A vibrant red patch at the tip of her nose clearly marked where she had been struck right on the yellow double lines along the center of the roadway.

The last otter was killed in Kansas back in 1905. In recent years, however, neighboring Missouri has reintroduced otters brought in from Louisiana. The otters have done so well there that their numbers have grown into the thousands. Otters have been moving up the river valleys across the border into Kansas seeking new suitable habitat.

In 2008 George Frazier and his daughter Chloe were in the Wakarusa Wetlands when they thought they spotted a giant muskrat! The photo George took that day was, according to state wildlife officials, the first verified otter sighting in Douglas County in more than a century.

Roger Boyd, the Baker University professor who manages their portion of the Wakarusa Wetlands, has stated that there have been at least five documented sightings of the Northern River Otter in these wetlands since the Frazier photo. Most of the biologists we have spoken with seem to think the otters seen here are just passing through since they prefer rivers over wetlands for raising their families.

The otter was the Earthdiver hero among the Otoe people. Three water animals each in turn tried to dive deep to retrieve sacred mud from the bottom. It was the otter who succeeded and thus gave the Otoe solid land upon which to live.

Beads made from the dried livers of otters were a sacred medicine that protected children from illness and injury. We have to wonder how many kids who arrived at Haskell in those troubled early decades had such necklaces torn from their bodies and cast away. Parents knew after a very short while that children taken away to these institutions were in great danger of contracting illnesses or being seriously injured as child laborers.  Boarding school officials viewed such necklaces as “witch-doctoring” or “devil worshipping”.

We buried the otter, on advice of a Kanza elder, near the water’s edge well away from where she might be disturbed by further highway construction or other development. She will remain here looking over and protecting the spirits of the children who died at Haskell for generations to come. And we will remember her every time we visit the wetlands.

WPO meets every Thursday at 5:30 pm in the Tommaney Hall library or in the gazebo/bandstand if the weather is good. We are adding to the boardwalk, restoring parts of the medicine wheel, and getting ready for Swampfest IV. We need YOUR help and support.