May 29 is World Otter Day, a day to celebrate these adorable, mischievous and graceful wild animals.

Unfortunately, as the exotic pet trade continues to ramp up, otters are finding themselves the increasingly desirable target of humans looking for unique animal experiences, according to new documentary from World Animal Protection. This timely short film shows the devastating effect this increased demand in hands-on otter experiences and pet otters is having on the wild animals.

World Animal Protection has found baby otters are being pulled from the wild to be sold to otters cafes and exotic pet markets, 12 of the 13 otter species are now in decline, and the otters caught in captive life are suffering from distress because of the conditions they are forced to endure. All of this destruction caused by humanity’s want to interact with these animals up-close.

Aaron Gekoski, a environmental photojournalist and film-maker who helped create this shocking World Animal Protection documentary, has witnessed much of this neglect first hand while living in Bali, Indonesia. He hopes his work to raise awareness about the exotic pet trade and its widespread negative effects inspires others to create change that will help protect otters and other animals that have become the focus of human fascination. 

Gekoski shared his experience documenting the otters caught in the exotic pet trade with PEOPLE in an effort to help save these creatures from further abuse.

How did your work looking into otters and the exotic pet trade begin?

World Animal Protection [a international non-profit animal welfare organization] are working on a global campaign about the exotic pet trade, and otters are one of the animals they’re focusing on. My colleague (director, Will Foster-Grundy) and I document stories of human-animal conflict. So we agreed to work together to produce a documentary about this little-known, harrowing and highly complex issue.

What is the most shocking thing you have discovered exploring this topic?

Otters are facing extreme pressures from numerous angles. Along with losing their habitat, they are killed by farmers for destroying their paddy fields or eating their farmed fish. And now, they are in high demand for the exotic pet trade. In order to supply the demand, babies are being poached from the wild after their parents are killed. Due to these threats, only one of the 13 species of otters is thriving; the other 12 have been identified by the IUCN as having declining populations.

Just this weekend I documented some baby otters that had been confiscated at customs in Bali, where smugglers were caught trying to traffic them to Russia. The authorities then sent the babies to a zoo. These otters have been dealt the roughest of hands: parents killed, stolen from the wild, packed in a suitcase to be smuggled to Russia, confiscated, and then sent to live the rest of their lives in a zoo. It was a tragic situation, and a microcosm of the problems facing these popular creatures.

Has there been an increase in the number of otters being brought into the exotic pet trade? 

The trade is growing, fueled by the internet and social media influencers. One particularly worrying trend is the rise in Otter Cafes. Tokyo now has more than half a dozen otters cafes, which vary in terms of the contact visitors are allowed, and the conditions the otters are kept in. At some of the cafes we visited, otters were confined to small rooms filled with people and allowed to run riot. Others were locked in cages for the majority of the day. The otters’ welfare is severely compromised for the entertainment of visitors.

As Cassandra Koenen, Global Head of Campaigns for World Animal Protection noted: “The otters are heard whimpering, shrieking and making distress calls while customers are interacting with them. Some are kept in solitary conditions with no natural light, others are seen biting their claws and exhibiting traumatized behavior – some of the worst housing conditions included small cages with no access to water”. One of the otters we saw had even bitten the end of its tail off.

What practices are used to obtain these otters for the exotic pet trade?

Investigations by World Animal Protection highlighted that some of the otters in Japan may have been trafficked illegally from Indonesia or Thailand. Otter cubs are usually snatched from their parents in the wild. Their parents — who are fiercely protective — are shot, electrocuted or their nests are smoked out, so poachers can take their cubs. Once in Japan, the otters may be traded for large sums of money. ” The trade in otters as pets is an interlinked trade network involving farmers, hunters, collectors, dealers, enforcement agencies, and transportation operatives. The explosion of online famous otters on social media is driving the demand for otters, making it a lucrative business,” said Koenen.

How do otter cafés affect otters?

Otter cafes negatively impact on otters in multiple ways. First of all, they are social animals that live in family groups of up to 20 individuals in the wild. They require space to forage and play, and can spend hours hunting fish. At the cafes, otters were being fed cheese and cat food, which doesn’t meet their nutritional needs. As mentioned, they also suffer from stress. And then there is the chance of disease transmission from human-otter and vice versa.

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What is the appeal to buyers about having an otter as a pet?

Otters are seen as cute, romantic, loyal and intelligent. They hold hands to ensure they don’t float away from each other, live in close family units, use tools to access food, and pat stones in the air and then roll them around their bodies. These unique behaviors and human-like characteristics have made them hugely popular animals, globally, and sought after for the exotic pet trade. However, the reality of owning one does not match the fantasy.

Why do otters make bad pets?

During our lengthy investigation for World Animal Protection, we visited an otter community in Indonesia, multiple otter cafes in Japan, an otter ‘celebrity’ in Tokyo, wild otter populations in the heart of Singapore, exotic pet markets in Jakarta, and interviewed an undercover investigator, unearthing links to the Japanese mafia. Along with this, we spoke to experts and conservationists to investigate this growing trend and the potential impacts on otters.

En route, it quickly became evident that otters do not make good pets. We spent time with Komunitas Otters Indonesia (KOI), a group of otter owners in Indonesia who reinforced this belief. “Keeping an otter is a big commitment,”  the founder of KOI, Georgian Marcello, told us. “We have a slogan, which is the 3B’s, meaning otters are bau (smelly), berisik (noisy) and of course they are boros (an extravagance).” Otters can eat 25% of their body weight in a day. As a result they are often fed cat food, which doesn’t meet their nutritional needs. Along with this, otters bite; one of the b’s they do not mention. From what we witnessed, you wouldn’t wish a pet otter on your worst enemy!

What are some misconceptions about otters, especially as pets?

Social media fuels misconceptions that otters make good pets. In Tokyo we visited one of the world’s most famous pet otters to see the realities of taking care of one. Takechiyo lives with a family in an apartment block in Tokyo. He even has his own Instagram account, with nearly 300,000 followers. Videos of Takechiyo eating, bathing and going about his daily life have rendered him a celebrity amongst otter enthusiasts.

At Takechiyo’s home, we watched him hoist pellets of cat food into his mouth, before repeating the process over and over, chewing enthusiastically. When viewing these moments in isolation, or via a photograph or video clip, it’s easy to see how people can be fooled into thinking that otters make for suitable and happy pets.

However, the illusion was quickly shattered as he then went on a tour of destruction around the house; climbing on all the furniture, chewing, shrieking, and even biting and scratching our translator. It was a lightbulb moment. Otters are best observed at arm’s length and in the wild.

How can people who love otters help these animals?

Visiting World Animal Protection’s website is a great start, to learn about their “Wildlife. Not Pets.” campaign. Never visit a cafe or any other operation that offers hands-on interactions with otters for tourism. People who visit these places may think that they love otters. But how can you love something whilst simultaneously condemning it to a life of misery?

There are also organizations that offer volunteer programs and are doing great work rehabilitating otters, like Cikananga Wildlife Centre in Indonesia. Here they are provided with specialist health care and an extensive rehabilitation program. Cikananga then works with the government to translocate suitable candidates, which they will carefully monitor over time.

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