Three beavers were found dead in the Northwestern lagoon (Photo courtesy of Erika Anderson)

Community members are heartbroken over the deaths of three beavers who have lived in the Northwestern lagoon since 2018 and brought joy to many morning walkers. 

Because the bodies were too decomposed to perform a necropsy, the cause of death remains unknown, university spokesperson Jon Yates wrote in a memo to the RoundTable. He added that the university plans to work with the county if the situation should occur again.

A live beaver was spotted after the recent deaths (Photo courtesy Erika Anderson)

Community members who frequent the lakefront to admire the beavers blame Northwestern for not acting quickly enough. Following the recent deaths, two live beavers have been spotted swimming in the lagoon, but some residents worry that the university is not adequately prepared should another beaver die.

“We don’t know how the beavers died,” said community member Judy Cochran. “They are a protected species, and Northwestern does not have a plan in place.” 

Cochran and her sister, Sarah Cochran, said they initially saw a beaver struggling to breathe and looking distressed on July 14. Three days later, the beaver was found dead, and two days after that, two more dead beavers were discovered. Facilities management picked up the dead beavers that day. 

The sisters made calls to Brookfield Zoo and connected with a wildlife biologist at the Cook County Forest Preserves, who was interested in performing a necropsy on the bodies. They called, emailed, and visited various university departments to ensure the bodies ended up in the right hands. The wildlife biologist also reached out to the university, but by the time Cook County Forest Preserves received the bodies, it was too late. 

The sisters expressed disappointment at the university’s response. “We have done all the footwork,” said Judy Cochran. But the university has not communicated well with concerned residents, said Sarah Cochran, and the few messages the sisters have received were “patronizing and uninformative.” 

Speculating the cause of death

Although it is still unclear how the beavers died, community members have several theories. Erika Anderson, who frequents the lakefill on her early morning walks, said she heard that a dead muskrat was spotted near the beaver lodge. Some think the muskrat might have carried a disease that killed the beavers, she said. 

The beavers were too decomposed to perform a necropsy (Photo courtesy of Erika Anderson)

Lawrence Heaney, a wildlife biologist at the Field Museum, said the beavers might possibly have died from a disease, but it’s unusual that three of the beavers died abruptly, while two appear in good health. In the event of a disease outbreak, it is more likely that all the animals die or none of them die, he said. 

The water near the lodge is stagnant and debris gathers on the surface, resulting in less oxygen-rich water in the deeper areas of the lagoon. Two community members purchased skimmers and have been removing layers of debris from the water’s surface, said Judy Cochran. She said there’s also concern that bacteria in the water might have caused the deaths. Given the beavers’ unexpected death, community members have demanded that the university test the water. 

“It’s conceivable that there was some toxic material in the water,” said Heaney. “It is certainly possible.” 

Without further information, the deaths remain a mystery.

Bringing joy during the pandemic

Anderson began walking along the lakefill early in the morning to avoid crowds during the pandemic. She first spotted the beavers in May 2020, and beaver sightings quickly became a part of her daily routine. 

Beavers grooming each other on March 13, 2021 (Photo courtesy Erika Anderson)

“Everybody was so isolated, and walking in the morning and seeing the beavers gave me something to look forward to every day,” said Anderson. 

Typically, she was not alone in watching the beavers, and a group often gathered to chat about the animals and recent sightings, said Anderson. It was an opportunity to make conversations while still following social distancing protocol. 

Hearing about the deaths was really hard, said Anderson, and for several days, she stopped walking along the lakefill because she didn’t want to see any more bodies. She said she still finds it difficult to talk about. 

“It’s a real loss for the community,” said Anderson. “There are a lot of people in Evanston that care about those beavers.”

Adina Keeling

Adina Keeling is a photojournalist and reporter, covering city news, sustainability, schools, and art. She also investigates mental health systems and environmental injustices in Evanston, and puts together...