We’ve heard stories of outdoor tourists behaving badly, snapping selfies with Yellowstone bison and harassing bears. It’s so common that there’s a whole Instagram account dedicated to calling out tourist morons who routinely throw caution to the wind to snap that perfect reel for their social media accounts, putting themselves and wildlife in danger. Sometimes we have to wonder why nature doesn’t reach out and bitchslap some sense into people.
But sometimes nature is dangerous, even when it seems all cute and snuggly, and you do nothing to provoke it.
Sometimes you can just be minding your business and enjoying the fresh air, and something comes at you from out of nowhere.
That’s what three women found out when a fun, relaxing evening tube float on Montana’s Jefferson River turned bloody and violent after a river otter attacked them, inflicting serious injuries to all three, especially to Jen Royce, 37, of Bozeman.
Sure, river otters might be cute AF, but these fuzzy little gangsters are members of the weasel family. They sport razor-like claws, strong teeth, and powerful jaws that grind and crush their prey, which include tough-shelled mollusks.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MFWP) says that otter attacks are rare but also acknowledges that the animals “can be protective of themselves and their young, especially at close distances.”
They can also, apparently, claw up an innertuber’s face faster than a weed eater with nitrous.
When Otters Attack
On Aug. 3, Royce and her friends Stephanie and Leila were celebrating her birthday by floating on innertubes in the Jefferson, enjoying a gorgeous Montana sunset.
“We were in the middle of the river in a deep and wide stretch that went far back from the road and behind the mountains,” Royce said on social media. “I saw one otter right behind my friend before it attacked. I didn’t even have a chance to get the words ‘there is an otter behind you’ out of me before it attacked her.”
Royce said the attack probably only lasted five minutes, but the otter managed to mangle all three women.
“This thing was vicious and relentless. It bit my face in several places, both of my ears, my arms, my hands, my legs, my thighs, and my ankle,” Royce said.
Royce desperately tried to defend herself from what must have seemed like a flurry of teeth, claws, and fur, but the process was more difficult because she was in the water, and otters are incredibly adept swimmers.
“Being in the middle of the river meant I couldn’t reach the bottom with my feet, so I was trying to tread water while fending for my body,” Royce said. “I tried to kick it away, but I would just get attacked somewhere else. I tried to hold it back at one point by grabbing its arm to hold it away while trying to swim closer to shore.
“Once I had my feet under me, I was able to fight back better and was eventually able to pull myself out of the river. It swam away after that.”
Sudden Struggle for Survival
Royce was finally able to crawl up the bank on the south side of the river, but during the attack, she had become separated from her friends. One made it out of the water on the opposite bank, while the other was clinging to a rock in the river, afraid to move because they didn’t know where the otter had gone. The women repeatedly threw rocks in the water, hoping to scare the animal away from their friend.
Only one of the women’s phones had made it safely to shore. With the phone in SOS mode, Royce’s friend could contact 911, but because of their remote location, it was difficult for emergency services to ping the phone for search and rescue.
And just that fast, at the teeth and claws of a pissed-off otter, these friends found themselves in a serious survival situation.
“I was covered in blood, and it just kept pouring out from my face and nose,” Royce said. “It was cold. We were wet. It was dark. We had no real good visual on each other due to distance.
“All we could do was scream and call out to one another. To anyone. But we were just so damn far away. From anything.”
It took almost an hour for the women to finally see red and blue lights moving through the dark canyon, but it was impossible for search and rescue to see them in their spot by the river, so one of the women made the tough decision to leave her companions and run more than two miles to the road to attempt to flag them down.
“Without any exaggeration, God’s honest truth, I did not think I was going to make it out of that river,” Royce admitted.
Royce had lost a considerable amount of blood, and the pain, stress, and adrenaline made her feel faint.
“There were so many thoughts going through my head during the fight, but what gave me the strength and vigor, one that’s hard to repeat and to even think about, was of my children. I couldn’t bear the thought of them growing up without their mom.
“And then the lights came. They were across the river, but someone had made it to us. I cannot explain how seeing those lights felt. I cannot begin to explain the huge relief and the hysterical release of tears knowing we weren’t alone and would soon be on our way out of hell.”
Tallying Injuries and Stitches
Royce hitched a helicopter ride from the scene to the Bozeman Health Deaconess Regional Medical Center. Her friends received medical treatment at the scene and were then transported to the same hospital.
After receiving three rounds of rabies shots, hundreds of stitches, and undergoing a five-hour surgery to piece her ear and face back together, Royce’s recovery hasn’t been easy.
“I’m really not ready to talk to anyone yet about this event. Words are too heavy and bring up too much emotion,” Royce told Free Range American.
“I still need help with most things as a majority of wounds are on my hands and fingers,” she wrote on Facebook. “It is very humbling to have to ask for help with simple things that I used to take for granted, like opening a pop can or pill bottle, cutting food, opening envelopes, gripping and turning door handles, and even putting on a seatbelt.”
Although Royce’s body is on the mend, she’s still dealing with the psychological wounds from the otter attack.
“I would say [the emotional wound], by far, will be the wound that takes the longest to heal,” Royce said in a Facebook post on Aug. 9.
MFWP advises outdoor enthusiasts to give all wildlife plenty of space to avoid dangerous encounters. MFPW also says, “If you are attacked by an otter, fight back, get away and out of the water, and seek medical attention.”