Otter dragnet: Are Cheyenne Mountain Zoo crews closing in on Kitchi?

The search for Kitchi the otter, who escaped from Cheyenne Mountain Zoo on March 25, has taken on a life of its own, with the Colorado Springs facility offering daily updates about the missing furball.

But Kitchi's days on the loose could soon be coming to an end. Fresh tracks were spotted near a Country Club of Colorado lake, and zoo spokesman Sean Anglum says, "With the warm weather coming for the weekend, we're really hoping that when people are out there recreating, they might see him."

Earlier this week, the Colorado Springs Gazette published a letter to the editor declaring that the city's participation in one attempt to capture Kitchi was a waste of money; read it below. But according to Anglum, that's an exception to the rule: "Most of the comments we've gotten have either been, 'We're so worried, we hope he's okay,' or 'Gee, he's free!'"

To recap the latest developments:

On Wednesday morning, Anglum says, "some of our folks went out looking in some of the areas we'd watched before -- a couple of places on our list where people had called in (to the otter hotline, 719-648-7348) and reported sightings, including a fairly large lake over by the country club. It's about a half-mile or three-quarters of a mile from the zoo as the crow files, and while they were there, one of our groups went down underneath a small concrete bridge and they saw tracks.

"Some fresh snow had fallen, but they weren't in the snow; they were in some very fresh, very gushy mud -- and they were absolutely otter tracks. Otters have a broader foot than a raccoon, for example, and a few of the tracks were so good that you could even see his little toenails on his end toes, which have a distinctive slant."

Despite these clues, the zoo staffers didn't see Kitchi on Wednesday or during a return visit to the area yesterday. But with more eyeballs expected to be on the scene over the weekend, Anglum's optimistic. "We encourage anyone who think they've seen something to call the hotline -- and if you have a cell phone, try to take a picture of a video so that we can confirm it's an otter, and not a raccoon or a muskrat."

As for whether people should really be hoping that Kitchi evades the authorities indefinitely, Anglum has this to say:

"There's not really too much of a danger from other predators," he concedes. "They're pretty intelligent, they can swim, and they're quick in water and on land. And he's had all his shots, so he's really healthy.

"But he doesn't have any experience with traffic -- that's a danger. And when interacting with humans in an urban situation, animals don't usually win in the long run. So we'd rather he be in a safe place with other otters for companionship, because he won't find any other otters on the Front Range. And although he's probably enjoying trout and koi and whatever he's eating, it doesn't take the place of the salmon he can get from us."

The best way to an otter's heart is through his stomach. Here's the aforementioned letter to the Gazette about Kitchi:

Wasting money on 'Kitchi'

Let me get this straight. The city of Colorado Springs is hurting financially and cutting staff and services, yet someone decided it's okay to use taxpayer dollars to send the fire department to the Broadmoor to rescue an otter? My hard-earned money is being used by Colorado Springs Utilities to search for cute little Kitchi in a culvert, using a robotic closed circuit camera. How many man-hours were spent looking for this escaped critter? How much did that cost? And who decided it was an appropriate expenditure of tax dollars and utility income?

I love animals as much as the next guy, but I'm sure I'm not alone in wondering if the money wouldn't have been better spent on turning on a few more street lights or fixing a few more potholes, or keeping one more firefighter or police officer on the job.

Doesn't anyone in charge have the means to determine what's truly important in these tough economic times?

Tim Fowler

Colorado Springs