At least make an effort to evolve.
"Pandas and silverbacks are played out," the WWF rep told me in the town car when I arrived in D.C.. "They don't reach people in the same way they used to. We need a new spokes-animal for the environmental movement." Leslie had her gray hair pulled back in a simple pony tail with a few free radicals around her temples. There was something about working with animals that made everyone age into Jane Goodall. "We're going with the
"Rad," I said. "I love otters. Did you know they hold hands when they sleep?"
"Actually, otter is kind of a misnomer, it's an amphibian. The rest of the name is entirely accurate."
"Right. It's pretty awful."
"Good," I assured her. "I look forward to pulling back the ugliness and seeing the heart of this majestic creature."
"Its heart is also pretty disgusting. We can show you one in a jar at headquarters."
"I would like that very much," I told her.
For the rest of the drive she explained that the snot otters in the wild were slowly dying. It was a massive salamander living in local rivers with skin that was particularly susceptible to absorbing toxins, in particular, chemicals and pesticides seeping into waterways. Recently, it's numbers had started to dwindle.
"Mother Nature is a terrible parent." I agreed. "On the flight here, my jet hit a goose. It went everywhere."
We all sat in silence, thinking about that for awhile. It was hard to tell if she was nodding in agreement or it was just the bobs of an uneven road.
At WWF headquarters we walked into a humid room with a skylight and a massive terrarium taking up most of the space. There I was introduced to my first snot otter.
"I think someone might have spilled something here,' I said.
"That's Sally. We have a few males in the other tanks but she's the biggest and the only snot otter bred in captivity. One of the biggest problems we're facing is that we can't seem to get them to reproduce in this environment. We think the same thing might be happening in the wild."
"You keep them?"
"No, they're on loan from the Zoo. Sally is here for you so be careful with her."
I looked closer at the mess in the middle of the terrarium. She was curled over herself like an eel but easily over two feet long with stubby legs, and in all other respects, resembled s**t. Her body was a slippery brown mass that tapered at both ends and offered no indication of which one might host a face. I didn't blame whatever refused to have sex with her. Not even the snot otter likes the snot otter.
Then it moved.
"No," I said instinctively, because I wanted whatever was happening to stop and never happen again. The mass didn't shift or change position as much as its insides writhed in protest for being encased in such an awful body. Each step it took looked like tendons snapping and bones rubbing up against each other. It slowly made its way in my general direction.
Leslie put hands on her wide hips and smiled. "She's flirting with you."
"It looks like a tiny nightmare."
She laughed and showed me stained teeth too big for her mouth. "It's also called a hellbender for that exact reason." Then she sighed and stared at it for awhile. "You have a lot of work to do," she said.
I was allowed as much time with the snot otter as I requested, but the WWF team insisted that I don't touch it without gloves because it sweats toxic slime and it has teeth that will draw blood on contact. I joked that at least it didn't stink but no one laughed, they just nodded and assured me that it did that too.
For the rest of the night I sat in the tiny humid room with the abysmal creature and tried to fall in love with it. In the water, she was just as slow and flaccid as on dry land except her skin pruned and flapped around in the artificial current like an old person in a hot tub.
"Come on in, I can squeeze over."
I watched her spill around in the mud for awhile and it seemed as though everything about this snot otter was intentionally miserable. Finally, her head shot up and swung to one side. It looked as though she might do something interesting. She raised a stubby arm to her face and scraped downward. A chunk of dead skin loosened, then freed itself from her head. She scraped her face against a rock peeling off the rest.