Within minutes of the announcement that Thomas the otter had died, the condolence notes started flooding in on The High Desert Museum's Facebook timeline.
People posted sad faces, expressions of sorrow and their favorite photos of Thomas.
“We have gotten so many comments from visitors who remember Thomas and talk about what he taught their kids,” said Melissa Hochschild, vice president of communications for the museum. “We've started to get cards and drawings from local kids who miss him. It's all been really lovely.”
Thomas, the High Desert Museum's furry aquatic mammal, died Oct. 25. He was 16 years old and had been delighting visitors at the museum for more than 10 years. While he may have been just an otter, Hochschild said, he represented a lot more for the museum.
“Our goal with all of our animals is to connect people with the wildlife and ecosystem of the High Desert,” she said. “Thomas and the whole otter exhibit spoke a lot to how important riparian zones are to local wildlife.”
Thomas' death left his roommate, Rogue, alone in the otter habitat exhibit. Rogue only recently arrived at the museum in March. Despite a rocky beginning, the two got along well in the end.
“Rogue really fit in great — he really perked Thomas up,” Hochschild said. “They wrestled around a lot.”
Hochschild said Rogue seemed to be sad at Thomas's passing, but his mood has improved in recent days.
“I think he's enjoying being king otter,” Hochschild said. “It snowed recently and it seemed like the first time he'd ever been in the snow. He was sliding around and being very active.”
Rogue arrived in March with fellow otter Sandy, bringing the museum's otter count up to three in the spring.
But it was quickly discovered that Sandy was unwell with a bacterial illness, which threatened the health of the other otters. Shortly after arriving, Sandy was sent back to the facility in Ohio where he and Rogue came from.
Rogue is now the museum's sole otter, but the museum is on the search for another to join him and is working with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to find one. Hochschild said a new otter might arrive in the spring.
A private memorial for museum staff and volunteers will take place at some point in the coming weeks, which will offer those who saw and worked with Thomas every day a chance to remember and honor him.
Any notes and letters related to Thomas' passing sent to the museum will be displayed on a special memorial wall.
A fund has also been established in Thomas' name to help with otter care for Rogue and any otters the museum hosts in the future.
“If people are so motivated to donate, that's great. But we're not looking at it as just a way to raise money,” Hochschild said. “It's more about remembering Thomas and how amazing he was. So many people bonded with him — he was a real favorite.”