A relaxing evening floating the river with friends two weeks ago took a turn for the worse for Sydney Sainsbury, who was attacked by an otter about 200 yards east of the Madison River Bridge.
The otter, she said, was relentless as it attacked her.
Sainsbury and her friends were floating the Madison River on inflatable tubes on July 9. She happened to be about 20 feet ahead of her friends at about 6:45 that evening.
“I spotted the otter on the other side of the river and it just came at me,” she said. “It was still attacking me under the water and out of the water. It just kept biting me, that was the scariest part.”
Friends were finally able to reach Sainsbury, and one of them hit the otter with a stick. It took several whacks before the otter relented gave up its attack.
The attack left Sainsbury with a broken right hand, torn ligaments and tendons and many bites and scratches. She said the animal bit through joints and ligaments on her hand. As a result, Sainsbury has had pins placed in the joint of that hand.
Her legs, too, were bitten and scratched, as well as her stomach and arms. The animal also got her just above her left eye.
“It could have got her eye,” Sainsbury’s mother Cathy said. “She is lucky.”
Sainsbury spent the night at Bozeman Deaconess Hospital, where she received X-rays and antibiotics — doctors feared the bite would become infected. Sainsbury must also get six rounds of rabies shots.
Her father, Rod Sainsbury, said he wouldn’t be surprised if her hospital bills and vaccinations total more than $40,000, adding that his daughter doesn’t have health insurance.
Sainsbury, having grown up floating area rivers, was never afraid of the water before the attack.
“I was terrified,” she said. “I’ve never been afraid of the water and I also didn’t do anything out of the ordinary to the otter. If I were to float again, there’s nothing I could do differently to have scared it away.”
Last week’s otter attack was not the first in the West Yellowstone area.
Jim Smolczynski, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks game warden for the West Yellowstone area, said that in the last three years about five people and two or three dogs have been attacked by otters along that section of the Madison.
“We are not sure if one of those is the same otter that attacked that woman,” he said.
West Yellowstone resident Misty Blank said her dog Brodie was one of the dogs attacked last fall.
Some friends were walking her dog when he went into the river to get a drink of water and was attacked.
“You couldn’t even actually see the otters, and Brodie went in the river to get a drink of water and two otters came from underneath and were trying to push the dog down into the water,” Blank said.
Blank’s friends started throwing rocks down into the river. The otters released the dog but then they started to go after the people.
The dog crawled back onto land, and Blank immediately took her dog to veterinarian Dr. Mike White.
“He had 35 to 40 bites,” Blank said. “Dr. White said Brodie was so lucky to be alive because of the amount of water that got into his lungs.”
The dog was also re-vaccinated against rabies. Blank said she has heard that there were other dogs attacked and tubes popped by otters last fall in the same section of the river.
“Brodie is a 50-pound dog,” she said. “If two otters can drown him, what can they do to the toddlers that go out (and float)?”
Smolczynski thinks the otter was a female based on the behavior it displayed during the attack.
“Maybe it’s protecting a den. If we can find the otter and the den, we would try to relocate it. If there’s a den, that’s always an option,” he said.
If otter problems continue, Smolczynski said a section of the river might have to be closed and traps will be set in that area.
If there is a den, it could also be past the boundary in Yellowstone National Park, in which case it would need to be handled by the National Park Service.
“Everyone just assumes they are playful little otters, but they are strong,” he said. “They are a wild animal.”
Smolczynski isn’t sure how FWP will remove the otter. Right now, FWP is posting signs warning floaters and anglers of the danger.
“I’ll keep looking to see if I can find this otter, and ultimately we are going to remove it,” Smolczynski said.
Anyone with information about otters in that section of the river should call Smolczynski 581-6231 or 994-4042.