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'An Otter Idea'

Bold initiative looks to raise funds and awareness by merging art, science and a massive scavenger hunt

After a long hike in England's Dartmoor National Park, Jeff Black and his wife stopped at Wayside Cafe. As they were sitting, drinking tea, they noticed scores of people coming in and out to take selfies with an otter sculpture. Out of curiosity, they approached the sculpture and learned there were 99 others scattered throughout England as part of a scavenger hunt to promote the park's Moor Otters Art Initiative. The 3-foot sculpture was painted bright green with pink and blue flowers and wetland plants covering most of its body. Black was in awe. "It captured my interest; it was like the otter's head was emerging from the plants," he said. "It was elegant and charismatic, standing on its hind legs, proud." Black and his wife joined the hunt and spent the next week searching for otter sculptures around Dartmoor National Park. They ultimately found 30 and submitted their check-list brochure to be entered in a raffle. But others, Black said, had taken the hunt even further, finding all 100. Black, a Humboldt State University wildlife professor who has overseen the River Otter Citizen Science Project since 1999, had just published the project's first 17 years of data in a scientific journal. "Very few people look at those things," he said jokingly, adding that while in England he had a revelation to bring a similar project to five counties across the North Coast with the aim of raising awareness of — and funds for — his otter project. "I was in reflection mode when I was on vacation in England, thinking, 'After 20 years [of the River Otter Citizen Science Project], how long am I going to continue this? Five years? Ten? Twenty? What am I going to do next?' And while I was in reflection mode, I stumbled on the Dartmoor otter project," Black said. "We [had participated in the scavenger hunt] for a week when I thought, 'Right! That's what I'll do.'" Excited that he'd found a creative way to promote the River Otter Citizen Science Project, raise awareness about otters and their watersheds, and raise funds for monitoring and restoration efforts, Black took to telling people he'd had "an otter idea." Now with the help of HSU, Black's plan is hitting stride and the North Coast Otter Public Art Initiative will be in full swing, with education initiatives and cute otter art on display in businesses throughout…

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