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A man looks at the water at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, which was reopened after being closed when a river otter took up residence in the garden and ate numerous valuable koi fish, in Vancouver on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The tale of the otter and the koi has become an urban Vancouver fable. It’s about one particularly slippery river otter who managed to bag all but three of the 14 prized carp belonging to the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in the city’s downtown. The carnivorous critter’s remarkable, 12-day reign of terror meant navigating busy downtown streets, squeezing into the walled garden and carefully avoiding the many traps – both on land and underwater – set to nab it.

Last Wednesday, in an effort to save the remaining koi, park staff partly drained their pool. Biologists with the Vancouver Aquarium corralled the soft-skinned fish into supple rubber nets designed for stingrays. In all, they found two adult koi and 344 juveniles that day, which they loaded into giant, white Coleman coolers fed with oxygen for transfer to the aquarium in Stanley Park.

The colourful carp are recovering in an 50,000-litre tank in the facility’s quarantine room. Freshwater biologist Mike Manalang is not taking any chances with the “VIK – very important koi” – in his care: Getting even a quick peek at the visiting cyprinidae requires a disinfecting shoe bath.

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The survivors are ethereal still, but mangled. Some seem to have fought the otter more than once. The lone white specimen has a large bite mark on its back. Part of its peduncle, the fleshy part of its tail, is gone. An orange adult has a broken fin ray.

The koi are unlikely to return to Chinatown until spring. Plans are being drawn up to otter-proof an exterior gate to their garden home that staff believe the mammal may have slipped through. The otter is on the lam. It has not been sighted in six days.

In stymieing local officials, the carp-eating rogue managed to capture the hearts of a strong majority of Vancouverites, at least according to internet junk polls: 75 per cent chose #TeamOtter over #TeamKoi, according to one recent vote. On social media, where @ChinatownOtter surfaced to taunt the city’s park board, the critter has been labelled “badass” and deified.

But what on the surface seems like a lighthearted story of a rascally river otter seems to have caught the city’s attention for another reason altogether. As days passed, and more and more carcasses began piling up, the conversations about #OtterWatch2018 began mirroring ongoing debates and tensions over cultural relevance and belonging, and the future of Vancouver and the city’s historic Chinatown neighbourhood more particularly. Buried beneath the story of warring animals is one about a beleaguered downtown area caught in the maw of rapid-fire renewal, and of a culture and a way of life under threat.

‘We’re talking about ourselves’

The Sun Yat-Sen garden, the first full-scale classical Suzhou garden built outside China, opened just before Expo 86, the 1986 World’s Fair in Vancouver. Its name nods to the doctor who many consider the father of modern China. This was not an arbitrary choice. British Columbia’s sizable Chinese community helped finance the 1911 Xinhai Revolution led by Sun, who visited Vancouver several times; it ended millennia of imperial rule in the country.

The park’s architects, including the late Joe Wai, a local visionary, integrated the elements of feng shui and Taoism that are standard for such scholars’ parks, which began flourishing during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). Its expansive koi pond, which stretches almost a city block, for example, offers stillness and a reflection of the open sky. Elsewhere, large, scraggy rocks chosen to evoke the awe of mountains are juxtaposed with delicate plants; some are native to the northern Chinese city of Suzhou, with each variety used sparingly.

The koi, which symbolize longevity and perseverance in Chinese culture, are a favourite of visiting children, who love to see the fish called to feed by a gong. For community and cultural advocate Melody Ma, the resident koi have also come to signify the resilience of the historic neighbourhood surrounding them. Ms. Ma sees the animals’ bloody fight as analogous to the one kicked off by gentrification, which is pushing out the area’s Chinese-Canadian residents, many of them low-income.

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Pundits on social media and elsewhere have similarly used the marauding otter as metaphor for the hipsters, condo marketers and cafés selling German street food all flooding a neighbourhood that still looks a lot like it did when Vancouver was a saw-milling town known as Granville. In this analogy, the otter, like gentrification, is “destroying the ability of the often elderly, Asian-Canadian residents of Chinatown to live their lives,” Eugene McCann explains.

To Dr. McCann, an urban geographer with Simon Fraser University who devoted a lecture to the topic this week, these conversations highlight struggles and debates over who gets to “claim” neighbourhoods and cities, and who has the right to live a decent life in a particular place. “What are we really talking about when we talk about otters and koi? We’re talking about ourselves, our neighbourhoods, and our lives in a rapidly changing city,” he says.

On social media, the debate veered predictably, if briefly, to the xenophobia that undergirds so many local conversations, over street signs, real estate and tax law. Some cheered the otter for being native to Canada. This analogy made the koi invasive and deserving of their fate.

And yet it was the farcical, not the ugly side of the story that caused it to take off initially, says Louis Lapprend, founder of Chinatown Today, a site chronicling life in the neighbourhood. Of the city’s attempt to relocate the miscreant, Mr. Lapprend likens the otter to the Road Runner and the park board to Wile E. Coyote, who can never quite catch his prey, despite his increasingly ridiculous schemes. At times, this did play like a cartoon battle of wits, with parks staff relying on increasingly specialized experts, who set up an increasing number of traps (six at last count), loaded with increasingly tasty bait, from canned tuna and chicken to fresh rainbow trout and scented oils. “And yet every morning,” Mr. Lapprend told The Canadian Press, “the park board would have to publicly announce the otter visited the traps, ate all the bait, and didn’t trigger a thing.” Beep, beep.

‘Madonna was my counterpart’

But while many delighted in the story and the attention it brought the neighbourhood and its struggles; others felt hurt by the coverage.

For Debbie Cheung, the Sun Yat-Sen garden’s marketing and communications manager, it stung to see the culture she works to promote and the fish that are an integral part of her daily routine turned into a 12-day internet joke: “It felt like my culture was under attack,” she said. “And people were cheering.” Throughout, she and the garden’s small staff felt “so vulnerable,” she adds.

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Madonna, the garden’s most beloved koi, was also, at 53, the oldest, the largest, and the most distinctive, with a big, fat belly, a curved spine and two black dots on her head. The grand old dame, a lustrous orange in colour, has been with the garden longer than any of the current staff.

Throughout the crisis, Madonna’s keepers held out hope that the aged carp, who had survived two die-offs, scoliosis and more than six months outside the pond during a recent restoration, had somehow escaped the otter. They were first to climb into the water to try to save the fish, sounding the gong to draw them close enough to net, but to no avail: the otter had scared the fish – who’d never before faced a predator – into hiding.

But on Wednesday, with the pond drained, Madonna was nowhere to be found. In the jade-coloured water, however, searchers discovered part of an orange head.

“Madonna was my counterpart,” the usually reserved Ms. Cheung said quietly. “She was part of our team. In her, I see a reflection of myself,” she adds, her eyes briefly filling with tears.

It’s that instinct, to see ourselves in other people, and perhaps even in other animals, that leads us to build our compassion; and it’s how we will feel our way to something like a shared community.

Rest easy now, Madonna, and be at peace.

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