Northern California, November 7, 2023
In a harrowing encounter that left him fearing for his life, a 69-year-old man is on the road to recovery after a vicious otter attack while swimming in Northern California. Matt Leffers of San Francisco recently shared his traumatic experience with USA TODAY, revealing that the attack occurred on September 2 at his family’s cabin in Serene Lakes, located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, approximately 15 miles northwest of Lake Tahoe. Leffers, an experienced swimmer, was training for a triathlon on a cold day, swimming in waters he had frequented for over 30 years.
“I was almost back to shore when all of a sudden I felt something grab my leg really hard,” recounted Leffers. Initially, he suspected it was his wife, but to his shock, no one was there. He realized he had been bitten. Moments later, he was bitten again.
Desperate to escape, Leffers tried to swim to safety, but two otters repeatedly surfaced in front of him, effectively blocking his path to the shore. “Within seconds, I was bitten again,” he recalled. “I tried being aggressive, but they just kept biting me. I attempted to float away to make myself less appealing, but they bit me again.”
In sheer panic, Leffers screamed, fearing for his life. However, his wife came to the rescue, paddling on a board and placing herself between her husband and one of the otters. Leffers managed to climb onto the paddleboard, and they made it safely to shore.
Leffers was subsequently rushed to the hospital, where doctors discovered he had sustained 40-50 puncture wounds across his body. His left arm was also torn open and required eight stitches. “The doctor who treated me said the attack occurred about two months after he treated a woman who was also attacked in the same lake by otters,” Leffers revealed. He received rabies shots and antibiotics before being discharged.
Peter Tira, a spokesperson for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, confirmed that the agency is investigating the attack. So far this year, there have been three confirmed river otter attacks on humans in Northern California, with two occurring at Serene Lakes and one at the Feather River in the Sacramento Valley, as reported by the state agency.
While these attacks are relatively rare, Tira explained that they can happen. River otters, he noted, are medium-sized carnivores, and when they feel threatened, they may resort to aggression due to their unpredictable and territorial nature.
Although river otters may appear cute to some, Tira cautioned against underestimating their sharp claws and teeth. He advised people not to swim near them or leave their dogs off-leash but rather enjoy these wild animals from a distance.
Leffers emphasized the importance of taking otter attacks seriously. He hopes that the state agency will take further measures regarding the two “aggressive” otters that attacked him. He is not alone in this call for action.
In an undated letter, residents from the Serene Lakes community requested the state agency’s assistance in preventing another attack by two otters that had recently “taken up residence” in the area. The letter, addressed to Chuck Bonham, the director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, was penned by Serene Lakes Water District General Manager Shauna Lorance.
Lorance’s letter mentioned that the community had informed the department of at least two individuals who were allegedly attacked by the otters. The letter urged prompt resolution, with the board of directors seeking closure on the matter.
In a response letter dated September 21, Raquel Elander, an environmental scientist with the state agency, stated that a wildlife conflict biologist had conducted a site visit and agreed that the otters’ presence and behavior were likely due to an abundance of fish in the lake. The agency recommended reducing the frequency of fish stocking and limiting it to the non-swimming section of the lake. Elander also suggested that if the otters involved in the recent incident were a mother and pup, the pup might disperse from the area in the coming months. The agency continues to investigate and will formulate a strategy based on further information about these otters.
Leffers, despite the trauma he endured, sees his experience as an opportunity to raise awareness about otter attacks. “Thankfully, I’m a very strong swimmer. I’d hate for this to happen to a child,” he said, emphasizing his commitment to ensuring the safety of children as the lakes become busier in the coming months.