August 28, 2008

You Rarely See an Otter These Days – Except at the Top of the Animal Popularity Chart

By Jenny Haworth Environment Correspondent

IT COULD be the animal's large appealing eyes and attractive furry features. Or it could be its association with popular television shows and films from Springwatch to Harry Potter.

Whatever the reason, the otter has shot up the popularity stakes to become the nation's new favourite mammal.

The rarely seen animal has risen up the rankings after failing to feature in a previous poll in 2000, which was won by the dolphin.

It scooped 265 out of more than 2,000 votes in the survey by BBC Wildlife magazine, beating hedgehogs, badgers and foxes.

Theories as to the reasons for its success include appearances in television shows such as An Otter In The Family and the Potter films, where Hermione Grainger has an otter as her protective "patronus" charm.

A cute picture of an otter also stared out of the front page of the BBC Wildlife magazine when the survey was launched, asking "Am I your favourite?", which is another possible reason for the success.

One of the biggest surprises of the survey was that the dolphin only made it to number eight, after winning in 2000, despite its loveable reputation.

One theory for its drop down the polls is the decline in dolphinariums at zoos, meaning many people have never seen them first-hand.

Another surprise was the bat, which made it to number ten despite its associations with vampires.

The mouse and stoat, neither of which made it into the polls in the survey eight years ago, were both voted into the top ten.

Fergus Collins, features editor of BBC Wildlife magazine, said he was not surprised the otter won the top spot.

"The rise of the otter perhaps reflects its resurgence in Britain in recent years after almost becoming extinct," he said.

"It's a beautiful, charismatic animal often featured in wildlife films, cartoons and even company logos, so it's no great surprise to see it top the polls."

Caroline Warburton, manager of Wild Scotland, the wildlife tourism association, noticed a common feature of many of the mammals in the top ten.

"A lot of them are often seen in and around towns and urban areas and I wonder whether that's a reflection of the results," she said.

"Maybe it's a sign that we live in an urbanised society."

She was pleased to see otters top the polls, especially as Scotland is a hotspot for the creature.

She also thinks the animals that feature in popular books, such as Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh and Beatrix Potter's stories, have done well in the poll. "I think it possibly comes down to stories. Maybe it's because they are animals that people associate with their childhood."

Stuart Brooks, head of conservation at the Scottish Wildlife Trust, agreed most of the animals were associated with characters in popular culture.

He thinks people's connection with wildlife often has little to do with actually seeing animals in the wild.

"A lot of it isn't a physical, or real, or even first-hand connection but it's experienced through things like television, books and popular culture. The animals are then assigned a character, so the hedgehog may be as nasty as you like but people have assigned it a character as Mrs Tiggy-Winkle.

"The bat has been assigned a persona as something connected with the devil or dark deeds.

"Clearly, it's not a nasty animal any more than the hedgehog, so it's interesting how people do these things."

The hedgehog came second in the survey, the badger and fox equal third, the squirrel fifth, the deer sixth, the mouse seventh, dolphin eighth, stoat ninth and bat tenth.

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