Otter slips away as Vancouver Chinese garden re-opens

Remaining rescued koi will be staying at Vancouver Aquarium

It’s been an emotional couple of weeks for staff and volunteers at Chinatown’s Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden as they have watched a wayward river otter kill most of the resident mature koi fish including Madonna, the most famous of the garden’s residents.

“Madonna is certainly one of the koi that has a lot of emotional associations and attachments,” said executive director Vincent Kwan. “Whether it’s staff or volunteers or our board… I think a lot of people are still trying to digest what’s happened and it’s certainly very emotional.”

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Madonna was more than 50 years old and had lived in the garden’s pond for more than two decades. Many of the adult koi have lived in the garden since it opened in 1986.

The rogue river otter was first spotted in the garden Nov. 18. Park board staff set out three traps but after in an effort to capture and relocate the animal. However after three days and no success, the board called in a wildlife relocation expert who set up a network of traps.

Over the weekend, garden staff was able to catch one of the remaining koi and transport it to Vancouver Aquarium for safe keeping. Earlier this week, park board staff started the process of lowering the water level in the garden and yesterday staff from the aquarium, the garden and the park board, with help from Aquaterra Environmental, which donated the use of its 100-foot seine net, corralled the remaining adult koi as well as 344 juveniles, which was unexpected, said Howard Normann, director of parks.

“The surprising thing for us was that even though before we didn’t have a lot of baby koi, since we re-developed this pond a year and a half ago and re-opened it, it looks like the large koi were spawning so there was 344 baby koi taken out of the pond yesterday,” he said.

The otter, it’s believed, has moved on.

On Thursday morning, Normann said all the traps had been removed from the garden and the otter had not been spotted since Saturday.

“As of this morning there’s still no sign of the otter,” he said. “We feel that Elvis has left the building and he’s no longer on site, or she.”

Normann said it’s believed that the otter made its way to the garden from False Creek and was able to squeeze through one of the garden gates.

“We’re not sure exactly at this point where it came from or where it went but we have some idea that being so close to False Creek… we feel that it’s more than likely the otter came out of False Creek because we know over in Hinge Park in Olympic Village there’s been some otter sightings before,” he said, adding that there are otters at various locations throughout the city.

“The unique part here — walled garden, 20-foot walls, limited access. How the otter figured this place out we’re still not sure,” Normann said.

As for the koi, they will be staying at the aquarium for the time being. There are plans to return the koi to the garden, but likely not until spring, Normann said.

“We’re not going to come next week and put them back in… the plan is we’re going to put a couple of small cameras around the pond. We’ll see what the movement is like, if the otter returns or not, and if it doesn’t I would guess over a period of several months we’ll make that decision to put the koi back in to the pond,” he said.

As for replenishing the stock of mature koi, the story has gained much attention both here at home and abroad, and from this, Kwan said, the garden has had several offers from people wanting to donate adult koi to the garden.

“There’s a lot of logistical and technical issues that we need to look through…”

The garden, which has been closed to the public for several days, also re-opened Thursday morning, with some alterations.

“We’re installing some grates on both our doors, we’re going to have automatic door closers, we’re putting a plate along the bottom to prevent the otter or any of the otter’s friends to revisit the garden,” Normann said. “We hope that will solve that issue of them coming back into the garden. That’s the only source that we found of access.”

@JessicaEKerr

jkerr@vancourier.com

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