The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, a serene island amid the urban whirl of Vancouver, B.C., features stone paths, graceful trees, an expansive koi pond — and, lately, a voracious and slippery river otter.
In the 10 days since it made its way through downtown streets to take up residence amid the greenery, the otter has systematically offed at least 10 of the pond’s decorative and valuable fish, riveting residents and stymieing local officials along the way.
The otter oughtn’t be there, at least according to the humans in charge of the garden, which shares a city block and pond with a public park of the same name. In a bid to contain the carnivore, they have closed the garden for the past five days, deployed several baited traps and evacuated one surviving koi to the safety of an aquarium.
But they have failed to stop the intruder.
“It’s really sad,” Deanna Chan, a spokeswoman for the garden, said of the koi killings. “We think of them as part of the family or part of the team. And we’ve been seeing them left for dead or made a meal of.”
Yet as it continues “playing coy and slaying koi,” as the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. put it, the otter antihero is capturing hearts locally and virtually. Twitter users following what has become known as #Otterwatch2018 have divided into Team Koi and Team Otter. Chinatown Today, a website focused on the neighborhood where the garden sits, is selling $2 buttons featuring illustrations of the two species as quickly as it can print them.
“I love it. Every minute of it,” said Louis Lapprend, the founder of the site and purveyor of buttons, the otter variety of which has a slight edge. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it, where the public gets captivated by something so, I don’t know, symbolic.”
The standoff began after the otter was first spotted in the garden on Nov. 16. Garden and city officials say they don’t know where the mammal came from, but experts have told local media that it could have migrated from nearby waterways or even from the nearby Pacific Coast. (River otters are also at home in salt water.)
One can imagine it felt it hit the jackpot when it happened upon a serene pond stocked with well-fed fish. Chan said the pond held 14 adult koi and an unknown number of juveniles from the carp species that she said are viewed in Chinese culture as symbols of abundance, good fortune and aspiration. In the summer, staff delight visitors to the garden, which opened in 1986 and was named for the founding father of modern China, by banging a gong to summon the fish for lunch.
While an individual koi can sell for $10 to thousands of dollars, even millions, Chan said the park didn’t know the value of its fish. But several were quite old, she said, including Madonna, who was donated to the park 20 years ago and was more than 50 years old. Madonna has a spine curved by scoliosis, Chan said, which “makes her special to us.” Her fate remains unknown.
The otter, knowing and caring about none of this, promptly set up a den and dining area near the garden’s gazebo. Soon, the carcasses of gutted fish started appearing.
At the beginning, officials sounded confident they would nab the suspect. By the end of last week, however, they had enlisted the help of a wildlife relocation expert, who set out traps baited with fish and fish oil and chicken, and lined with carpet, Chan said, because “otters apparently like to be comfortable or cozy when they’re on the land.” The otter, its belly by then full of seven koi, helped itself to the bait from one trap but evaded capture.
On Saturday, garden staff began trying to rescue the remaining koi. It has not been easy, Chan said. The pond is lined with clay that gives it a jade color symbolic of wealth and purity but that also muddies the waters, making it hard to spot the fish. One koi was caught, but by Sunday night, the death toll had risen to 10.
Fish massacre aside, the drama has been a welcome shift in focus for a neighborhood where most news is about gentrification and evictions, said Lapprend, whose site features stories about Chinatown’s culture.
“I view the garden, and I think many people will agree with me, as a symbol of the Chinatown community’s resilience in the face of change,” he said. The otter may be an outsider, but Lapprend said he sees its koi evictions as something more earthy. “You’re in the middle of a big city, and nature happens.”
Lapprend added that he was firmly Team Otter, though his loyalty is wavering. “I don’t usually relate to carps, but I think we’ve reached a point where it’s such a tragic story,” he said. “It’s like one team is crushing the other, and you just feel bad for everybody involved.”
The otter, at least, is likely to have a happy ending. If the otter is trapped, officials plan to relocate it to British Columbia’s Fraser Valley. The garden might replenish its koi stock, Chan said, and will have to assess its pond security measures.
She added that she is not angry at the otter.
“I mean, it doesn’t know. It eats fish! It’s just doing what it normally would do,” she said. “We just want all the animals to be safe.”