The river otter found its way into Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park and Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden one weekend in mid-November. I found out when I checked Twitter the following Monday and saw a video of the otter and a few reactionary tweets. I still remember my own reaction: “There was an otter in the Garden?!” A few hours later, a media outlet picked up the story. Then another. And another. And another…
Over the course of nearly two weeks, the otter caused utter chaos. Day after day, it ate into the Garden’s cherished koi population; evaded traps set by a wildlife relocation expert; spawned #Otterwatch2018 and some truly terrible puns; and attracted the attention of people from all over the world. The news machine was ravenous for information.
As the story progressed and koi rescue efforts got underway, the direction of focus seemed to take another turn. Initial pieces had been concerned with the unexpected presence of the predator; these were followed by often frivolous ones covering the ‘teams’ emerging from the public debate. In its final stage, reporters increasingly had questions about the cultural significance of the koi, their place at the Garden, and the deeper social issues coming to the surface in public discussion. A quirky water cooler topic had become an educational moment.
At last, the remaining koi were taken out of the pond. And the otter seemingly vanished into thin air. #Otterwatch2018 had come to a close.
It’s been a couple of weeks now since the tail end of the craze, and the fatigue from working at the centre of the storm has passed (though I have since developed a cold).
What I can’t shake so easily is the hurt and frustration I felt as I followed the media coverage and the online conversation over those days. The lack of sensitivity was astounding. There were, of course, the racist comments. There were those who justified the carnage by citing the non-native status of the koi — conveniently ignoring the fact that they are kept in an isolated, artificial pond. There were those who just wanted to get a piece of the pie. There were those who found the whole thing hilarious. Perhaps they would have been less amused had their 30-year old dog had had its stomach ripped out by a bear. Every tweet that advocated Death to Koi felt like a punch to the gut.
Possibly the most incredible moment was when the Vancouver Public Library created a booklist about otters to “celebrate the new resident at Sun Yat-Sen Garden”. It’s worth asking why they thought the otter’s presence was a reason to celebrate, and why they didn’t think to create a corresponding list about koi. I would have thought that a library, of all places, would have taken the time to present a more balanced, researched outlook.
As a Canadian of Chinese heritage, this kind of public reaction came as a real slap in the face. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden opened in 1986, a result of years — decades, really — of efforts by community organizations and individuals to keep Vancouver’s Chinatown alive. At the time, it was the first authentic full-scale Chinese garden to be built outside of China, meant to promote Chinese culture and cross-cultural understanding in a city where this had been sorely lacking. It is a site of cultural heritage, a museum, and an important education resource. The koi have been a part of that from the beginning.
I told The Washington Post that I wasn’t angry at the otter, because it was just doing as nature hardwired it to do. I was telling the truth. My anger was aimed elsewhere, at the people who didn’t take it seriously — who would never take it seriously unless they had skin in the game. But then again, perhaps they were just following their nature too. After all, we humans have a history of being selective with our empathy. We have a history of being self-serving, insensitive, xenophobic, and cruel.
Despite the above, I consider myself an optimist. I’d like to believe that those who joined #TeamOtter did not intend to be insensitive towards the koi, the Garden, and Chinese-Canadian heritage. They likely did not realize the significance embedded there. But that in itself is part of the problem. They were so quick to pick sides that they never paused to think about what those sides meant, or whether there should be any sides at all. For the majority of onlookers, it was entertainment, pure and simple.
The otter killed our koi for survival. The people ridiculed their deaths for fun.