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  • Writer's picturePiper Foster Wilder

Crab shells and fish bones // Muddy webbed footprints washed away // This den once a home

by Jack Donachy


The photograph is faded with time, but the image is still fairly sharp. He, or she, is sitting in shallow water, thick, round, tapered tail floating above a carpet of pebbles. Even wet and matted down, the chocolate and cream-colored fur looks luxuriously soft. It is not difficult to imagine why they were hunted with such zeal once Japan began trading with the West in the late 1800s. Oblivious to the photographer, the animal is leaning against a clump of Shinjo River bank grown thick with reeds, forepaws clutching a slivery fish of perhaps eight inches or so. Its eyes are closed with pleasure as it bites down on the head of its prize. The day is overcast – dark enough to draw the nocturnal hunter out to forage. The otter finished its meal, quietly slipped downstream along the bank, and disappeared. The year was 1979 and the photograph represents the last confirmed sighting of this species. The public awareness campaign to which this postage stamp contributed came too late to bring the otters back from decades of overhunting and steady habitat loss. Lutra lutra whiteleyi, the Japanese River Otter, vanished forever sometime after that last photo was taken.

Jack and his wife, Barbra, write about wildlife, food and travel at

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