Rudi the otter: ‘we had to convince Parliament to focus on clean water and the easiest way to do that was with a baby otter’

Affectionate and loving he may be, but small-clawed otter Rudi has a purpose.

‘He has a terrific memory and is very intelligent. He’s very good at his job: PR,’ explains Daphne Neville. Rudi is the 10th otter Mrs Neville has owned at her Gloucestershire mill since she realised how filthy England’s rivers were in 1980. ‘We decided we had to convince Parliament to focus on clean water and the easiest way to do that was with a baby otter.’

Daughter Perry used her 18th-birthday money to buy a 12-week-old cub, named Bee, ‘because otters smell of honey’. Hundreds of public engagements and photoshoots followed, garnering the support of then Environment Minister Michael Meacher and Sir David Attenborough. ‘It’s done too well,’ admits Mrs Neville. ‘Now, 2,000 otters are killed on roads each year.’

Daphne Neville with her pet otter Rudi. Photographed at her home in Gloucestershire. Photograph: Richard Cannon/Country Life Picture Library

To combat this new problem, Mrs Neville and Rudi are promoting Animal Alerts, which glue onto cars and emit ultrasonic sounds to warn deer, rabbits, dogs and otters (they can be bought from Amazon).

It’s not all campaigning, however: Rudi is a regular at fêtes, children’s parties (even at Kensington Palace) and film shoots. ‘He leaps straight into his travelling cage, because he knows he’s going on an adventure. He’s thrilled when he knows people are going to admire him.’

Daphne Neville with her pet otter Rudi. Photographed at her home in Gloucestershire. Photograph: Richard Cannon/Country Life Picture Library

Rudi is also a professional on camera: ‘If I explain what to do, he understands. I treat him like a human being.’ His most recent appearance was on ITV’s The Durrells: ‘We re-created Corfu here and at Ealing Studios. I got him to run from one end of Gerry’s shed to the other with a trail of cups of water.’

Although gentle, Rudi is licensed under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976. ‘I’m conscious of his 36 sharp teeth. I’m probably a bit schoolmarmish, but I’ve never had a problem in 40 years.’

Daphne Neville with her pet otter Rudi. Photographed at her home in Gloucestershire. Photograph: Richard Cannon/Country Life Picture Library

Rudi’s preferred place is on Mrs Neville’s shoulders. ‘His mother abandoned him,’ she explains. ‘I had him with me all the time, like a joey, so he was warm and used to everyday living.’ Otherwise, he lives in a large cage in the garden, where the wild otters his predecessors helped save ‘come and say hello’.