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Energy & Environment
Central Texas experienced historic winter weather the week of Feb. 14, with a stretch of days below freezing. Sleet followed snow followed freezing rain, leading to a breakdown of the electric grid and widespread power outages. Water reservoirs were depleted and frozen pipes burst, leaving some without service for days.

During The Winter Storm, The Austin Aquarium Went Dark And Cold. The Otters Snuggled For Warmth.

Bonnie and Clyde, a pair of Asian small-clawed otters, kiss at the Austin Aquarium. Mammal keeper Will Whisennand posted a TikTok video of himself cuddling with the otters during last month's power outages, garnering 22 million views.
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
Bonnie and Clyde, a pair of Asian small-clawed otters, kiss at the Austin Aquarium. Mammal keeper Will Whisennand posted a TikTok video of himself cuddling with the otters during the winter storm power outages, garnering 22 million views.

On a recent weekday, the Austin Aquarium was packed.

Toddlers waddled up to exhibits, smashing their faces against the glass to peer at octopuses and stingrays and sharks — oh my! Ruffed lemurs shrieked, and parents disciplined.

And way in the back, two otters squeaked.

“This is Bonnie and Clyde,” said Will Whisennand, who oversees care of the mammals at the Austin Aquarium, as he walked into the otter exhibit. “They squeak when they’re happy. They squeak when they’re sad, when they’re excited, when they’re hungry. They’re always squeaking.”

As Asian small-clawed otters, Bonnie and Clyde are the size of small cats, and they eat a lot of seafood. They are 2 years old, have semi-webbed feet and are excellent swimmers. They also love Whisennand. When he walked into their exhibit, they scurried over to him, and when he knelt down, they buried their faces in his shirt.

51000431441_9d1b3d87eb_o.jpg
Michael Minasi/KUT
Whisennand snuggles with Bonnie.

Two weeks ago, Whisennand posted a video to TikTok of himself cuddling Clyde. In it, he's wearing a hoodie and a headlamp. It’s pitch dark, and he looks cold. Like thousands of other businesses and homes in Central Texas, the Austin Aquarium lost power in the midst of severe winter weather.

The temperature inside, which usually hovers just below 80 degrees, dropped to the 50s.

“We could almost see our breath in the building,” Whisennand said. “That’s definitely when the animals started to feel it.”

Whisennand said while the low temperatures never endangered the otters, they were frightened — Clyde, in particular.

“He’s a big baby, especially when it gets cold," he said. "He was whining all day long, so I went in there and picked him up and held him for about an hour. I put him in my hoodie to keep him warm and he was just in heaven.”

In the 10-second video, which has been viewed 22 million times on TikTok, Clyde burrows his face into Whisennand’s chest. As the otter squeals, he looks toward the camera, appearing distressed, and Whisennand kisses him on the neck.

@wildlifewill95

Had to keep my babies warm during the power outage.... 🦦 #zookeeper #otter #zoo #aquarium #winterstorm #texas

♬ SugarCrash! - ElyOtto

Whisennand said as much as the animals were freaked out by the power outage, so, too, was the staff.

“We were all very stressed and very scared, honestly,” he said.

Without power, the animals were getting cold and the pumps that filter the aquarium's tanks could not run.

Within a day of the power going out, the aquarium was able to get ahold of several generators and propane heaters. Staff rotated these from exhibit to exhibit, warming the animals.

“After the first few days the animals got more used to it,” Whisennand said. “They warmed up and they realized, oh this is kind of how it’s going to be from now on. They adapt very quickly.”

After five days, the power returned. And so did the otters’ sense of mischief.

Whisennand, who has cared for Bonnie and Clyde since they were 6 months old, said the pair lives up to the storied bank robbers after which they are named.

“They definitely will empty your pockets,” he said. “My chapstick, my keys. They pulled my phone out of my pocket. They threw my walkie-talkie in the water a few times.”

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Michael Minasi/KUT
Bonnie plays with plastic toy rings.

But, at the end of the day, he said, they’re softies. “They just want to be held, want to be cuddled, want to be smothered.”

Sometimes, don’t we all?

Whisennand left this week to help open another aquarium location in Houston but said he’ll be back to visit Bonnie and Clyde. When he does, there may be more otters to see. Bonnie, it seems, is pregnant. Otters have a short gestation period — just two months — so she could give birth soon.

“It could honestly be any day now," he said.

Got a tip? Email Audrey McGlinchy at audrey@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.

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