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Otter attack surprises Austrian tourist swimming in Wisconsin lake

Above is a North American river otter. Otters like this one bit the legs of a woman who was swimming Tuesday in Lake Owen near Drummond, Wis. (1999 file / News Tribune)

DRUMMOND, Wis. - An Austrian woman on vacation in Wisconsin is getting rabies shots after she said she was bitten several times by at least two otters while swimming in a lake.

Brigitte France was out for her customary morning swim on Lake Owen when she heard something hissing behind her, she told the Duluth News Tribune.

France, 51, lives in Altach, Austria, with her husband, former Duluthian Ted France. Each summer they spend time at a family cabin on Lake Owen near Drummond, Wis., in Bayfield County.

"For 14 years, I swim in that lake," Brigitte France said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "I like to swim long distances. I swim close to shore so I could get out if something happens."

When she heard the hissing last Wednesday morning, she turned in the water and saw an otter poking its head out of the water.

"I thought it was really cool," she said. "I'd never seen an otter before. Then, all of a sudden, there were three of them."

The otters dived and popped up farther out in the lake. France resumed swimming.

"All of a sudden, one of the otters popped up just a couple meters from me, next to me," said France, an elementary school teacher. "That made me feel uncomfortable. I decided to get out of the water. I swam right to the bank, about 3 or 4 meters away from me."

The trouble began just as she approached the lake shore.

"I had my hands on the ground," she said, "and there they were -- one on the right leg and one on the left leg."

The otters bit her eight or nine times, she said.

"I shook my legs, and they went away," France said.

She says she remained calm as the otters bit her and that the bites "never really hurt much."

She believes the otters were adults.

Otters are not known to attack humans, said Martha Minchak, assistant area wildlife manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Duluth.

"It's incredibly unusual," Minchak said. "I've never heard of anything like that before. They are predators, so who knows? If they were young ones, they might have seen her as a threat or as a food source and didn't know what they were doing."

Otters typically eat crayfish, waterfowl, fish, clams and other mollusks, Minchak said.

After shaking off the otters, France walked along the lakeshore, washing her wounds as she went, and returned to the cabin. From there, family members took her to the emergency room at the Hayward Area Memorial Hospital, where her wounds were treated and she began a series of rabies shots.

Since her treatment at the emergency room, France also has taken Bach's Rescue Remedy, an alternative medicine said to have a calming effect.

France will get one more rabies shot before leaving for Austria on Monday, and will take her last two rabies shots there.

She harbors no ill will toward otters.

"I haven't been haunted by the experience," she said.