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Vol. 8, No. 19
May 11-17, 2000
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Becoming the Otter
by Christy Grimes

Some reporters will do anything for a story

Hey: If I have to sack up as a giant otter to get attention, kindly pass me the whiskers and fur. I did just this at Bay Weekly’s Birthday Bash, and for about 15 minutes I was the life of the party — sort of. At least I got the story: I Was a Middle-Aged Rodent.

It all started when I was hanging around the food, stuffing my face. Off in the distance, I noticed a huge furry river otter looming over my little boss, Sandra. So I did what I had to: Whipped out my pocket camera and got a few pictures. It turns out the otter is the Calvert Marine Museum’s mascot, making a special appearance just for us.

Later Sandra introduced me to the man behind the mammal, volunteer Mark Guiffrida. “Ask Mark about his otter job and we can run a little story,” said Sandra. Okay.

“So Mark,” I said. “I’ll bet you’re a hit with the ladies in that suit.” Mark sighed. “Yeah, otters attract women — but only in the costume.”

The original otter is Calvert Marine Museum director Doug Alves. “At first people didn’t know what it was,” he reports. “They thought it was a beaver or a muskrat.”

Alves solved the problem by attaching to the costume a badge that spells out: River Otter.

A museum needs a mascot? “We’re trying to get across an environmental message, but we want to be fun, too,” says Alves. “We’re not a stuffy old place with curators telling you not to tap on the glass.” To describe what his museum offers, Alves coined this slogan: “Figureheads, fish, fossils, food and fun.”

Since Alves, assorted volunteers have donned the pelt to bring otter energy to local events: shaking hands, cutting up, even dancing — a specialty of Mark’s.

“I got into the dancing part,” Mark says. “The otter got everyone dancing to the band. What’s great is, in that suit no one knows who the heck I am.” Adds Alves, “You take on a whole persona when you put on that furry thing.”

Mark has lent his talents to the role on and off for four years. And talent it requires, as I was soon to learn. After I’d grilled him nonstop for 17 minutes on what it was like to be an otter, he offered to let me take a spin in the costume and find out for myself.

Switching Places

The first thing I learned is that suit is hot.

“How about if I do this for a half hour?” I asked Mark as we walked to his car to get the suit. “You won’t last that long,” he said.

The day is a humid 90 degrees, and the fur on this suit has a thick quilted backing. There are four pieces to the costume. For starters, a one-piece fur jumpsuit Velcros up the back. “The suit was made by a theatrical company in Baltimore,” says Alves. “I don’t know why they quilted it. Maybe to add body mass.” The effect is such that even in midwinter the suit is suffocating.

It is topped by a huge plastic head that fits over your own like a big fishbowl, though with far less visibility: You see through a pair of mesh screens painted to look like otter eyes. “It’s like tunnel vision,” says Alves. “Sometimes you’re walking along and a kid comes in under your radar line and — boom! — suddenly you have a five-year-old attached to your stomach and you never saw him coming.”

Then come the feet: They’re like a pair of fuzzy bedroom slippers, and they come in two sizes: really large and downright huge (later, stalking around in those gunboats, I was always a little afraid one or the other would roll off).

After Velcroing me into the suit, Mark hands me a pair of big furry mitts for my paws, then steps back to take in the result.

“This is the only chance I get to see how I look in costume,” he says.

Somehow, I think Mark looks better as an otter than I do. Though fairly tall, I’m too short for the suit. The crotch dangles around my kneecaps, and the leggings puddle around the ankles. For once I’m glad I have really long arms. The sleeves, sorry to say, fit me.

Suited up, I’m escorted on my maiden voyage, lumbering across the party grounds like Frankenstein. Sometimes Mark leads; other times he herds me from behind, making sure I don’t step on any children or trip over steps. The otter’s head is rigid: You can’t look down or from side to side. Mark otters without a guide. I don’t know how he does it.

“Incoming,” Mark says suddenly. I feel something around my knees. It turns out to be a tiny boy giving the otter a hug. “Kneel down,” urges Mark.

“When you’re an otter, people either love you or they hate you,” says Alves. “Some kids just don’t know what to do with you.” This one does: He wants to shake hands, and I try to oblige, letting him grab my oven-mitt paw with his tiny hand. Then he skips off, thankfully, for I’m out of tricks.

But I’m starting to adapt to the costume: I’ve got some pep in my step, a roll to my stroll. “Hey, there you go!” Mark encourages.

Near the bandstand, a scary looking biker dude with a bunch of tattoos and a beer in each hand briefly holds his beers aloft and does a little shuffle, trying to goad the otter into dancing. I’m about to step out there and cut a rug when Mark repeats something he mentioned earlier about heat stroke.

Otters don’t talk. No one can hear you through the headgear anyway. Mark has mastered river otter pantomime.

“To be an effective otter, you’ve got to exaggerate your gestures,” says Alves. “When I see a bunch of kids, I’ll give a hop like I’m surprised, and to show I’m laughing I’ll bend forward and wrap my paws around my stomach.”

Lacking such a repertoire, I just wave like the president. I keep forgetting no one can see my face. As I move past people like a slow barge in Mark’s tow, I keep smiling as if they can tell. The otter’s face is actually blank.

People are game, but I don’t generate quite the level of delight Mark did in costume. He became the otter, whereas I’m just a darn fool swaddled in fake fur on a hot day. People sense me. I keep hearing, “You must be really hot in there.”

I want to say, “I’m an otter. This is my natural state!”

So I bombed as an otter. Perhaps you have more potential.

“We’re always looking for people who’d like to be the otter,” says Alves. “It’s a nice way to interact with the public, and it makes our museum a friendly place.” If you need more incentive, Alves says, “It looks good on your resume if you’re applying for a job at Disney World.”

Apply for this job with Calvert Marine Museum at 410/326-2042.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly