Monster of the Month: Kushtaka

The name alone fills me with glee: Kushtaka, the trickster wereotters. That’s right: not werewolves—wereotters.

Alaska is one of those places where anything seems possible. My husband and I took a road trip from Anchorage to Homer a few years ago, and driving the road between the Chugach Mountains and Cook Inlet is like no man’s land. Your cell phone signal disappears in spots. If your car breaks down, you’re not going to have a good time… and that is especially true if you happen to run into wereotters. Hey, there’s no one to hear you scream! Of course, the Kushtaka typically don’t hang out over that way, but rather, in the bits of land directly between British Columbia and the Gulf of Alaska: traditional Tlingit native lands.

The Kushtaka are a Tlingit legend—they believe at least some otters can shape-shift into humans to do evil. Specifically, the Kushtaka trap the souls of regular humans to prevent them from reincarnating… for what reason, I haven’t yet discovered. The Kushtaka are usually hanging out in a group, and they might find you when you’re lost or injured, claiming they’re there to help. Or maybe they lure you to them by screaming like a woman or a child in distress, relying on your sense of decency to get you alone. Whatever the case, they lure you into the wilderness, usually to a river, and maybe tear you limb-from-limb or turn you into one of them. Another version of the story indicates that Kushtaka are more interested in tricking sailors to their deaths.

But don’t worry if you have a dog: dogs apparently repel Kushtaka. Good boy, Spot! Wereotters can also be warded off with copper, urine, or fire. I mean, if you pee on a creature and light it on fire, and it doesn’t back off, there’s a bigger problem, no? Whatever the case, there’s no actual record of Kushtaka sightings, nor—of course—any recorded deaths. Kushtaka are, though, reputed to have arrived in Alaska from Asia, crossing the Bering Strait during the last ice age.

You can find references to Kushtaka in popular culture, of course, including the novel Hold the Dark (2015) by William Giraldi and The Twins of Petaybee series (early 2000s) by Ann McCaffrey. In 2019 a Coast Guard member made a short film called Kushtaka; it was filmed in Kodiak, Alaska. No reports of any wereotter sightings during the filming.

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