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Second otter attack reported in the Northland

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Forget pesky mosquitoes or black bears. It's angry otters that are chasing visitors out of the woods in northern Minnesota.

In less than a month, unusually aggressive otters have attacked two Twin Cities women swimming in Northland lakes about 60 miles apart. They're two of the three attacks reported to the state in the past three months, puzzling experts who say otters generally are meek, playful creatures.

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The latest victim, Carol Schefers, 38, of St. Michael, was swimming at her family's cabin on tiny Ude Lake near McGregor, in Aitkin County, last weekend when something suddenly nipped her beneath the dark, rum-colored water.

"The first thing you think is fish are attacking," she said Thursday. "I thought, 'Wow, these fish are feisty.' "

She tried to shake off the attackers, but they kept biting, seemingly trying to pull Schefers, wearing a life jacket, underwater.

"All of a sudden, bam, bam, bam," she said. "I thought, 'We've got big muskies here.' "

She began struggling, screaming as she flipped on her back. That's when she saw the otters' eyes and whiskers.

The two otters left 18 bite marks across her legs, ankles and arms before her husband hoisted her into the boat. At a nearby hospital, doctors, never having treated an otter attack, gave her antibiotic, rabies and tetanus shots as a precaution. She still is recovering.

The other recent attack happened last month north of Duluth, where Leah Prudhomme of Anoka was training for a triathlon on Island Lake. An otter peppered her with 25 puncture marks, some 2 inches deep, its fangs shredding her wet suit.

Bob Mlynar, a Department of Natural Resources conservation officer in Aitkin who responded to the attack on Schefers, said it's odd for otters to be so aggressive. "I've never heard of anything like this happening," he said.

Kirk Smith, supervisor of the Minnesota Department of Health's foodborne, vectorborne and zoonotic diseases unit, said his unit often hears of skunk or bat bites, but "very occasionally" an otter case happens. In June, a man tried to pick up a baby otter in western Minnesota and was bitten.

"It seems unusual to have a cluster of these," Smith said, adding that otters don't carry rabies but could get it if bitten by a skunk or other rabid animal.

A few years back, in the summer of 2009, a woman was bitten eight or nine times by a group of three otters while swimming at Lake Owen in Bayfield County, in Northwestern Wisconsin.

The creatures have made a comeback in Minnesota, with 12,300 spreading across the state, now the largest aquatic carnivore in northern Minnesota waters, according to the DNR. They usually eat fish and clams and breed in the spring, which is why University of Minnesota Prof. James David Smith surmises the otters were protecting nearby pups.

"I think it's just a rare event," he said, adding that people are more likely to run into a black bear or mountain lion.

That's Mlynar's guess, too. He told the Scheferses that, although otters can only be trapped during a season, people can carry a shotgun in their boat and, "if they have an aggressive otter coming at their boat, I have no problem with them shooting an otter."

As for northern Minnesota visitors, they shouldn't be leery of taking a dip in a lake. "I really don't think it will happen again," he said.

That's what Prudhomme, now nicknamed "otter girl," banked on, returning to Island Lake for a recent triathlon.

But Schefers isn't taking any chances, still shaken by nightmares of the lake attack and vowing not to swim in a Minnesota lake again.

From now on, she said, she's sticking to swimming pools.

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