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Rare river otter a celebrity after settling near Golden Gate Bridge

January 3, 2013 |  1:34 pm

River otter known as Sutro Sam munching on a fish last month. Credit: San Francisco Chronicle

Since moving into the ruins of San Francisco's historic seaside baths near the Golden Gate Bridge, a river otter has gone from curiosity to celebrity.

“Sutro Sam,” as he has been dubbed, is believed to be the first river otter to make San Francisco its home in decades. Although biologists don't know how the otter decided upon the old Sutro baths as his home, they do know that he appears to be very comfortable in his watery digs.

He spends his days catching fish, sunbathing on the concrete walkways of the pools and scouring the shores for vegetation, perhaps rounding up the material to make a nest for the cool nights.

“He’s got everything he needs down there,” said Megan Isadore, the co-founder of the River Otter Ecology Project, which tracks the mammals in the area. “He’s got food. He’s got a place to eat. He’s fine.”

River otters once thrived in the San Francisco Bay Area. But development and the fur trade in the 19th and early 20th centuries nearly wiped them out.

Jouko van der Kruijssen, a graphic designer in San Francisco, first spotted the otter around the beginning of October and has dutifully returned to the baths every other day to keep an eye on the mammal’s habits. He also signed up as a volunteer with the River Otter Ecology Project.

Over the weeks, he said, a number of people have attempt to strike up a friendship with the otter: One man purchased some trout from a supermarket for the animal; another encouraged his golden Lab to swim with him.

“As a city otter, he has different things to deal with than a normal wild otter,” van der Kruijssen said.

Although people might feel inclined to try to help the seemingly lonely otter, Isadore cautioned, they need to be mindful that he is, after all, a wild animal.

“If they are approached, they will bite,” she said. “They will bite a person and they will bite a dog.”

Isadore said she doesn’t know how long “Sutro Sam” will stick around the baths. He might just get lonely and shove off to find a mate in the late winter.

“The only thing he’s lacking is a female,” she said.

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--Nicole Santa Cruz

Photo: River otter known as Sutro Sam munching on a fish last month. Credit: San Francisco Chronicle

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