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Still searching for Kitchi 

Ranger Rich

He was young when the crowds gathered to see him. He was strong and handsome and sleek and brown and he had great teeth. Wherever he went there was plenty of tail trailing behind him.

Then, suddenly, he vanished from public view. Spring approached and we could only imagine he was still out there, testosterone surging through his hairy flanks, obsessed with mating. Experts say he could do that frequently and for more than an hour at a time. On land or in the water.

We're talking, of course, about Kitchi, the North American river otter who escaped from our Cheyenne Mountain Zoo two weeks ago but now is playing in the Masters at Augusta, Ga. — although it's possible I've confused Kitchi with Tiger Woods.

The point is that Kitchi the otter got out and has not been recaptured, and our village is very sad. Although we are buoyed somewhat by knowing that fish-eating otters survive quite well in Colorado. And we're also hopeful that while he is free, our otter will bite Mayor Lionel Rivera, who smells kind of fishy.

Kitchi was born in the Louisiana wild in 2008. He came here in 2009 as part of an exchange program in which we sent Louisiana a toothbrush and three grammatically correct sentences.

Until the Great Escape two weeks ago, Kitchi, whose name is Algonquin and means "Brave," had lived with another wild-born otter, Liwanu (whose Miwok tribe name means "growl of a bear"). Also at the zoo were two captive-born otters, Tom and Larry.

At dawn on March 25, keepers discovered the four otters missing. Small metal crimps that held the wire mesh fence to the concrete foundation had been peeled away by the inquisitive mammals. Two otters were quickly located inside the adjoining grizzly bear enclosure, enjoying a feast of trout they'd caught in the bears' pond.

But Kitchi and Liwanu had escaped the enclosure and the zoo's perimeter fence, and had headed up the mountain toward the zoo's landmark shrine to Will Rogers.

At 10 a.m. that day, workers recaptured the shy Liwanu. But Kitchi's tracks in fresh snow went under another fence and onto The Broadmoor property where, zoo staff feared, he would soon be renamed Gustavo, be paid $3.45 an hour and put to work washing sheets and towels.

No, really, the tracks led to a narrow drainage pipe beneath the golf course. Kitchi popped out for an instant and zoo workers huddled at each end of the 600-foot-long pipe. They held nets and hope. "We thought we had him," says animal care manager Roxanna Breitigan.

They did not.

Kitchi stayed in the tunnel and night fell. Workers blocked one end with heavy rocks and at the other put a large cage trap baited with trout and salmon. But the next morning the trap was empty.

The zoo asked Colorado Springs Utilities for help. Utilities sent a crew with a robotic camera, an $80,000 device used to check inside a pipe just before an act of God causes it to burst and send millions of gallons of sewage roaring into our living rooms.

The robot went into the tunnel and suddenly there was Kitchi on the monitor. He was hunkered down, eyes aglow in the camera's light, about midway down the long pipe. He was herded by the robot toward the far end, where the cage trap sat. He moved closer and closer. Then he came out of the tunnel and into the trap.

"He stepped on the trigger gingerly. It didn't release the trap door," says Breitigan. "He went back into the tunnel."

The tunnel was again blocked for the night, and in the morning the robotic camera went the length of the tube. No otter. During the night Kitchi found a rusted opening and dug out. Tracks in the snow wandered across the golf course. The sun came out. The snow began to melt. The otter trail died.

Kitchi was gone.

The zoo now has an otter hotline (648-7348) in case anyone sees Kitchi. One caller said he'd seen the otter. In a cage. On the back of a truck, on Interstate 25. Heading for Pueblo. Another caller said the otter had been eating from her cat's bowl on a back patio. Zoo workers found raccoon tracks at the cat bowl, and I think you know what that means: The otter is apparently riding a raccoon.

There were silly April Fool's Day calls, too. I don't think we here at the Indy have to tell you how we hate that kind of thing.

Anyway, there's a good chance the otter will hide during the day and roam at night among the many fish-filled Broadmoor ponds and live out his life the way it began. Wild.

But for now, there's an otter "capture van" with nets on 24-hour standby. Zoo staff is on alert, too.

"I still have hope we'll get him back," says Breitigan.

She has one more trick. The Denver Zoo has a breeding pair of North American river otters, and the female is giving off a strong I-am-ready odor inside their enclosure.

"I asked Denver if we could have some of their smelly otter hay," Breitigan says.

So don't be surprised if, sometime this spring, we get the big news from the zoo that during the night, miraculously perhaps, somewhere in the darkness on Broadmoor East golf course, they have trapped Tiger Woods. Or Sandra Bullock's husband.

rangerrich@csindy.com

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