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Tokyo family's river otter pets making waves as international Instagram stars

Small clawed river otter Aoi, left, and Takechiyo eat their special cat food while owner Ayako Higuchi and her daughter Reina watch, in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward, on May 18, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- When a couple here went to a pet shop in search of a miniature dachshund roughly nine years ago, they had no idea that they would leave with a pet small-clawed river otter -- or that their third river otter would attract over 270,000 followers on Instagram and international adoration.

Instagramer Ayako Higuchi (@ponchan918), or rather her pet otter Takechiyo, 6, has attracted fans and visitors from all over the world. While she does not post photos of herself on her Instagram account, Higuchi agreed to reveal herself for the first time for The Mainichi.

"The pet shop owner told us that otters were just as easy as dogs to keep," Higuchi explained of how she and her husband, whose hobby is keeping exotic pets, came to purchase their first otter, Kotaro. But raising Kotaro, and later a female river otter Hime, at their home was anything but easy. "They say you are a fool for buying another otter after the first one -- but we have kept four."

The Higuchi family currently has two small-clawed family members -- male river otter Takechiyo and recent addition, his "little sister," roughly 5-month-old Aoi. Many foreign fans mistakenly believe that the otter's name is "Ponchan," from Higuchi's Instagram handle. But he is actually named after the first shogun to unite Japan in the 1600s -- Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), who was born Matsudaira Takechiyo. After Kotaro passed away at a young age from kidney stones common to river otters, and Hime of a broken heart, "We wanted to give him a name so that he would have a long life -- not as long as Ieyasu, of course," Higuchi's husband joked. "Ponchan" is actually Higuchi's nickname.

On her Instagram, Higuchi posts photos and videos of her daily life with the two otters and her 1-year-old daughter Reina. Picked up by various media, followers from around the world may have fallen in love with the unusual, but loveable eating habits of Takechiyo. The international star lies on his back while reaching with his dexterous front paws to grab each piece of food before dropping it into his mouth to munch. Following his rise to fame, curious visitors from the U.S., Australia, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and more, where keeping the exotic animals as pets is either illegal or unheard of, have come to meet the otter. Higuchi has also sent products like desk calendars and other items as far as Russia, Switzerland, Sweden and Chile.

While they have plenty of Japanese fans, the majority of Takechiyo and Aoi's adoring visitors are foreigners who have come to Japan as tourists. "Sometimes tourists message me on Instagram telling me that they will be in Japan from this date to this date, and suddenly ask for my address," she explained, lamenting the language barriers and cultural difference that she has faced since Takechiyo and Aoi have become popular. "There are also people who ask if it's okay to come right away," her husband added with a laugh.

The Higuchis also get domestic love calls. They have linked up with other domestic otter owners for events such as a recent photo exhibition in Nagoya, teamed up with publishing companies to produce calendars and an upcoming photo book to be released in September and collaborated with illustrators for stamps on the free messaging app Line. There are even negotiations for Takechiyo to collaborate with Japanese professional baseball team the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles later this year. The latter has been difficult, as the couple worries what would happen if Takechiyo decided to bite a player!

Higuchi would like both Japanese and fans from abroad to know about keeping river otters is that they are not easy pets. Unlike dogs or cats, they are still wild animals, and even if they are bottle-raised to become used to humans, they still don't listen to commands and wreak havoc chewing on household items.

"I've had people ask me, 'I bought an otter, but I don't know a good veterinarian. What do I do?' and it makes me think, 'Then why did you buy it?'" she said, stressing that doing proper research and finding a proper vet before even considering buying the animal (if legal) is extremely important. Between constantly chowing down on special cat food that does not contain phosphorus to prevent kidney stones and taking baths twice a day in a pool in the Higuchi's bathroom, otters can also be a heavy burden on finances aside from their roughly 1.6 million yen price tag.

Still, the Higuchi's aren't looking to take advantage of Takechiyo and Aoi's popularity, and reject all requests to "manage" the pair. "This is just our hobby. I'm not looking to make money," she said, putting out most of the items for the sake of the otters' fans. "They're a part of our family."

(By Alina Kordesch, Staff Writer)

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