Two Otters sitting together on a rock
Getty Images, Sarah Throckmorton

Vicious River Otter Attack Near Tahoe Sends Man to Hospital—Again

"I can’t tell you how traumatic it was. It was a nightmare,” the victim said.

Many of us think of otters as cute and lovable, but an array of attacks by otters this summer has certainly changed our perception of the water animals: Three women in Montana were attacked by a river otter so bad, one had to be life-flighted to the hospital. California has had at least two this summer as well—but now their count is up to three: Matt Leffers, a San Francisco resident, was swimming in Serene Lake outside Lake Tahoe earlier this month when a river otter struck again and viciously attacked him.

Leffers was staying at a lakeside family cabin for an end-of-summer vacation when the otters attacked. There had been another incident of an otter attacking a woman at the same lake back in July; Leffers had heard of the previous attack, but was in the middle of training for a triathlon, so into the water he went.

"Normally I would swim around the lake, but I knew where she got bit, so I didn't go over to that side of it," Leffers told the outlet Field & Stream. "I was swimming back to the cabin, and I felt something tug hard on my right calf."

At first, he thought it may have been his wife. However, he looked back and didn't see her—or any otters for that matter. But river otters are stealthy and agile in the water, and eventually, Leffers realized there were indeed two otters in the water with him. "I'm like, 'Oh, shit,'" he recalls. "They bit me at least 10 times and would not let me escape. I got bit on every single limb."

He decided to float on his back, since he remembered hearing that if a marine animal attacks, you should make yourself appear less interesting. Unfortunately, that did not work. It only gave the otters more surface area to nip at. The otters bit him in the rear.

Leffers said, "It really hurt. They had me trapped. They were so fast. I could only see them when they popped their heads out of the water near me. I started screaming for help, but there was nobody on the lake."

Thankfully, his wife heard his shouts from the shore and headed out on their paddle board. Upon seeing his wife, Leffers said, "I had never been more relieved in my life because I'd thought I was a goner. I thought I was done."

He was able to get onto the board with his wife and off to shore they paddled. Kristi, his wife, took him to Tahoe Forest Hospitals ER, where Leffers was treated by the same doctor who stitched up the other two otter victims, Dr. Martin Rosengreen. Leffers' puncture wounds were irrigated. One of his deeper cuts needed eight stitches. Leffers also was given his first round of rabies shots. Typically, vaccines are given on third, seventh, and 14th day following exposure. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the risk of humans contracting the disease is rare, about one to three cases a year. The shots are given as more of a precaution, and the agency estimates that around 55,000 treatments are given per year.

River otters are found throughout California's waterways and are not considered a depredation issue by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Typically, nuisance otters are only found around fish hatcheries, and they are trapped and relocated. Leffers reported this attack to the agency but has yet to hear what will be done about these two territorial otters.

"It was like escaping a life-or-death situation. I can't tell you how traumatic it was. It was a nightmare," Leffers said. "I love to swim and have a big triathlon coming up in October. I can't wait to get back in the water, but I am not getting back into Serene Lake this year."

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