A half-circle of 15 people stood early Sunday at the shore of Santa Rosa's Spring Lake where a break in brambles and trees allowed access to the water.
Ruthanne Johnston, 71, of Cotati stepped up to a small wooden box at the center and lifted a door facing the water.
She stepped back and the group held their collective breath as they waited for the brownish gray nose and whiskers of a North American river otter to appear.
"It could take 20 minutes," said Doris Duncan, executive director of Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue.
The young female otter was among 853 animals taken in for rehabilitation by the nonprofit rescue center so far in 2011, Duncan said. The animals include a golden eagle, bobcat kitten, four young coyotes, 30 gray fox, a spotted skunk and many raccoons.
They expect to release a rare Ferruginous hawk Tuesday near Tomales Bay, she said.
The otter appeared Oct. 26 in a backyard off Summerfield Road. A dog first discovered the semiaquatic mammal whose rear right leg had suffered a long gash. Two young men corralled her into a dog kennel and called the rescue hot line.
Volunteer Margaret Johnston-Gee, 48, of Cotati answered the phone.
"They were very anxious," she said.
The men met her at the center's Petaluma facility on Meacham Road and they took her inside. She proved to be an escape artist, first slipping her 9 pounds through a 1.5-inch slot and wreaking havoc in the wildlife rescue center's pharmacy.
After all, the nomadic animal is related to the weasel, badger and wolverine, Duncan said.
"She was so obviously healthy," Duncan said.
The center bought a $175 spool of strong wire and poured some extra concrete to fortify an enclosure with a pool where she lived while her leg healed.
On Sunday, within the half circle of 15 crouching people, including rescue staff, park rangers, volunteers and curious passers-by, a nose finally poked out of a door in the wooden box.
"There she is," Duncan said.
But the nose retreated. After three sniffs, the otter bounded down the embankment and slipped into the water and swam away.
She surfaced under the shelter of a low-hanging willow tree and peered at the group. Then she slipped below the surface with a splash and disappeared.
"I hope she stays out of trouble," state Park Ranger Bob Birkland said.
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or firstname.lastname@example.org.