Encounter with mother otter at California national park sends visitor to the hospital

Manzanita lake and Lassen peak inside Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Manzanita lake and Lassen peak inside Lassen Volcanic National Park. Officials have closed five acres of Manzanita Lake at the park after a man was bitten by a female river otter.
(Prisma Bildagentur / Getty Images)

After an encounter with a river otter sent a man to a hospital, officials at Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California are warning people to stay out of the water at a popular lake.

The man was swimming in Manzanita Lake on June 25 when he was bitten by a female river otter, park spokesman Kevin Sweeney told The Times on Tuesday. The man was hospitalized with “significant injuries,” including scratches and puncture wounds that caused bleeding, but they did not appear to be life threatening, Sweeney said.

Sweeney said that the incident occurred about a tenth of a mile from a ranger station, so rangers were able to respond quickly. No further details on the man’s injuries or condition were available.

It is unclear what prompted the incident, but officials believe that the man may have gotten too close to the female otter’s kittens, prompting her to aggressively react.

Despite their “cute and cuddly” exterior, river otters have sharp teeth and claws and are dangerous when they have their babies around, he said. The otter that bit the man has three kittens.

Since the incident, park officials have increased patrols in the area and placed public safety signs around the park to warn people about the potential danger of otters. A roughly 5-acre portion of the lake where the attack occurred has been blocked off, and park officials said visitors should avoid swimming in the area and not use soft-sided flotation devices.

NPS map of Mazanita Lake.
(National Park Service)

“We’re still watching her and we have wildlife biologist out there in the field making sure that she’s still in that area,” Sweeney said. “So for now, we’re giving her space. We’re keeping visitors out of her home. It’s a good reminder for us in national parks that we are visitors and that our wildlife has their right to raise their babies in these places. And so, from time to time, we need to take a couple steps back and let them do that.”

Sweeney said the incident is only the second involving a river otter that he’s aware of in the last 20 years. The otters are rarely seen and mostly keep to themselves, he added.

This incident is “very surprising, and animal attacks at Lassen are extremely rare,” Sweeney said. “I think you have a better chance of getting bitten by a squirrel that’s been fed human food than anything else.”


The national park is also home to bobcats, mountain lions and bears.

Officials asked visitors to report any river otter incidents, especially those involving aggressive behavior, to a park employee or at the visitor center.