A crisis of otters

I never dreamed I’d live through a small scale moral panic about the territorial behaviour of otters in Singapore waters. For context, a local otter watching group has taken it upon themselves to defend a pack of otters that recently lost its alpha male (the Marina otters) against an aggressive larger pack (the Bishan otters) that seems to want to eliminate them.

These well-meaning enthusiasts have turned this aggressive territorial battle into something of an epic melodrama.

The storytelling around this is phenomenal: there is the deep pathos of the loss of a patriarch and the helpless brood he leaves behind (he was apparently a sort of founding otter father, one of the first to be spotted in the city). One of the enthusiasts raised the possibility of erecting a statue in his honour (at the moment, there is a little card with his photo hanging from a lamp-post in memoriam). The advancing pack from Bishan is portrayed with Manichean clarity (down to Star Wars inspired language) as a menacing force of evil. The footage is damning– the frightening desperation with which the Bishan otters are trying to get to the rival family is indeed terrifying.

As a result people have taken to the waterways to scare the Bishan otters away, blocking their advance to the other side of the river where the bereaved pack is hiding. The latest chapter in this saga involves the death of one Marina otter pup. An umbrella was erected over its carcass as a mark of respect, and to shield it from the hot sun.

This is all thoroughly amusing but for some reason also incredibly disturbing. Does it indicate anything beyond the bizarre, stupid, oddly touching madness of otter otakus? I dunno. The online buzz is intense. Why are so many people getting so emotional? What is at stake? Is it the minor miracle of seeing wildlife in this cold, manicured city? Does it offer hope? Is it the cuteness of otters? Is it something fun to do between the grinding drone of life here? Some drama, some enthusiasm for something, anything?

It seems to me that these otter otakus love their otters but forget somehow that these otters are wild: that beneath all our anthropomorphic projection, our good and evil narrativisation, our acts of love, otters attacking otters is just what happens in cramped territories.

My takeaway: we live in thrall of storytelling. It galvanises us, it motivates us with good intentions. And we aren’t always critical enough of the story being told, or our good intentions, our moral impulses. We’re swept up in the rush against evil, the defense of the weak, the fear of losing something precious.

And I think this points to something deeper and bigger than a crisis of otters. Something about this otaku behaviour feels familiar, feels like such a quintessentially Singaporean response. Caught up in a story, outraged, blunt, and clumsy. Is this how we process difficulty as a society? Always online, always with fiery emotion and conviction drawn from a bad story told well, or at least with authority. Told with the aim of rousing us to guard against evil, against the inevitable order of things, against base, corrupt nature itself. Our actions can only be good, because in this story we are upholding something pure, something that feels so unquestioningly right. The frightening reality is that someone else might be right, or at least not evil, even if they look like an advancing pack of slick-coated, teeth-baring monsters.

We tell a human story about otters because it helps us do what feels right, even if it’s really dumb. But really otters are not people, and nature is a big and complicated place.

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