Visitors marveled at the otter playground at Liers' home.
by CHRIS ROGERS
As Walt Bennick flipped through slides during a presentation of his photographic history, “Upper Mississippi River at Winona,” this spring, he almost did not stop to show the audience a photo of a man embracing a live otter. Everybody knows the story of Emil Liers, Winona’s otter whisperer, Bennick said. Why bother?
Decades ago, David Belz was in fifth grade when Liers and his animals came to Belz’s school in La Crosse. “The otters were running under the seats and all over the place,” Belz recalled. “I’d never seen an otter like that.”
Perhaps no one saw otters like Liers did. He was a fur trapper at a time when harvesting animal pelts was still a big business, and he had likely skinned hundreds of animals when in 1928, near Grand Marais, Minn., he came upon one that changed his life. It was a female otter that had been caught in a trap he had set and drowned. That was his goal. He scooped up the fur bearer, then heard a pitiful sound coming from somewhere nearby. Two little otter cubs were laying in the cold mud, calling for their mother. Something must have stirred in the fur trapper because he wrapped the cubs up and took them home. Liers’ young daughter cradled them and bottle fed them, and, as the story goes, her father never set another trap.
Instead, Liers started raising and training otters, constructed an otter playground at his Homer home, took his otter friends for leash-less romps in the woods, used them as duck hunting retrievers, and, reportedly, became one of the world’s foremost otter experts. “Liers is the only man in the world to breed otter in captivity, and what’s even more amazing … train them to be house pets, to retrieve like the best hunting dogs, and to do tricks and jobs that no dog can ever do,” according to Josef Israel’s 1942 account in the Saturday Evening Post. Reader’s Digest reported that Liers trained 200 otters and that he made breakthroughs in otter nutrition that allowed zoos to keep the animals for the first time. According to Israel, the secret otter formula was: “horse meat, bone meal, rolled oats, wheat-germ meal, alfalfa meal, whole milk, orange or tomato juice, yeast and cod-liver oil.” The former fur trapper would go on to give lectures at the American Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh’s Academy of Science and Art, the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, and, of course, Belz’s elementary school.
“I was fascinated by him and how he made the conversion from a trapper to an educator. That was what caught me, that this guy totally changed his life around to educate people,” Belz said.
When Liers started out his otter whispering career, the aquatic mammals were reviled because anglers believed they depleted fish populations. According to Bennick’s 2008 biography in the Winona County Historical Society’s (WCHS) Argus, Liers was arrested for allowing his otters to swim in a local trout stream. Once one of his otters, Carmencita, wandered onto a neighbor’s property, and the neighbor cut her down with an axe, Israel reported. “There was real murder in my heart then,” Liers told Israel. Liers launched a crusade to convince anglers and hunters that otters rarely eat fish — he may have oversold that point — and that they deserve to live. The Homer resident was featured in numerous articles over decades, he dramatized the lives of otters and other animals in the children’s books “The Otter’s Story” and “The Beaver’s Story,” and Disney turned them into live-action film specials, including “Flash, the Teenage Otter,” in Technicolor.
Locked away with other rare books in the Winona Public Library’s Minnesota Room — patrons have to ask for it — there is a copy of “The Otter’s Story,” a sort of coming-of-age story from the perspective of a young otter, Ottiga. “The otter is the most maligned and misunderstood of all animals,” Liers wrote. He described the cruelty of trapping in graphic terms, especially for a children’s book. Ottiga’s father gets stuck in a trap, “his foot and leg swollen in the trap, so sick he could not talk to them. His teeth were splintered and broken from biting at the cruel steel that held him, and blood had matted his sore, cracked jaws.” Liers adds, “Ottiga never lost hope, but nowadays few otters roamed the woods and streams. Man, in his greed for fur and his false fears that otters ate his fish, had killed as many as he could.”
In a 1953 interview with the Winona Republic-Herald, Liers explained why he made the transition from lecturing about otters to writing a book from an otter’s perspective: “I’ve been trying to tell the story to emphasize the importance of protecting the otter population in the interests of useful wildlife conservation, but I couldn’t make them realize what I felt.”
Liers’ wife Lillian penned a short story about a mother otter and her litter, which the WCHS Argus published in 2004. Describing the cubs playing with their grandfather in the pool, Lillian Liers wrote, “They adore their big gentle papa. He forgets the dignity of his five years and romps with them like a cub … What a riot of pleasure.”
Lillian Liers passed away in 1971 and Emil Liers died in 1975, at the age of 80, according to Bennick’s biography. The WCHS archivist said he had the honor of being shown around Liers’ old home in Homer by its new owners, who planted flowers in the old otter waterpark.
Photos courtesy of the Winona County Historical Society