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Adventures in Otter Space

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Animal Updates | Mammals | Conservation | Volunteering

Thursday, January 31, 2013



The Furball’s Story Comes Full Circle

The little female otter pup was whining as I entered the behind-the-scenes holding area in the Aquarium of the Pacific during the fall of 2008. This was the orphaned otter’s first night at the Aquarium, and she definitely seemed to want attention from her human caretakers. The sea otter baby was found alone on the Central Coast of California. Deemed too young to have the skills necessary to survive in the wild and too old to be put into a surrogate otter mom program that would have had foster parent otter females teach her those skills, the orphan was fortunate to have found an adopted home in Long Beach.

While getting into the waders that would allow me to join her in the shallow waters of her tank, I noticed that the otter’s total attention was fixed on me. When I was finally in the water with her, the orphan’s whines turned into whimpers as she swam near. This was my first meeting with the critter that I would affectionately call the “Furball”.

Because she was a young orphan the staff would keep an around-the-clock watch on her for her first few months at the Aquarium. This included feeding her several times day and night. This coverage put a strain on the paid staff. Thus this volunteer (me) was recruited into being a surrogate “dad” for the little pup to fill in the gaps between the paid staff shifts. This began what I call in this blog my “Adventures in Otter Space”.

I stood still in the water and let the young otter swim around my waders to get used to me being with her. Her whimpers stopped as she felt more secure having someone around with her. I then moved over to a little island set up in the tank that allowed her a place to haul out and allowed me a spot to sit down. It was going to be a long eight hour shift so it was nice to not have to stand throughout the night. The air trapped in the wader allowed my legs to float straight out on top of the water while I sat. It also allowed me to get most of my body out of the cold water for a while. In addition it provided a safe harbor for the otter. I was surprised when she came over to me and used my wader legs as a breakwater to float and snooze out of the gentle circulation currents of the tank.

The pup and I hit it off well from the beginning. She seemed to feel very comfortable and secure having me around that first night. In fact, a couple of times when she was fast asleep, I decided to get up quietly to get out of the water for a while. As soon as she noticed that I was gone and was headed up onto the deck she started to whimper and then whine loudly until I got back into the water with her. The vocals of a whining baby otter are one of the most ear piercing sounds in nature. I could not stay out of the water very long while she was uttering her cries.

Grooming is a very important skill that sea otter pups need to learn from mom. Having no blubber layer, they have to keep their fur extremely clean and well-kept as it needs to trap air to form an insulating layer to protect them from the cold water. The little otter had yet to master this skill. Baby otters often climb up onto their mothers to groom. Since I was acting as a surrogate parent, she would haul out onto my floating legs as I sat on the island and proceeded to rub her fur with her paws. There were areas on her fur-covered body that she just couldn’t seem to tend to properly. Because of this, one of my duties was to formally groom her as needed. This involved lifting her out of the water onto the island and drying her off with a towel. I would then proceed to comb her fur until it was nice and neat. Not for vanity’s sake but to keep her from getting chilled. I have to admit that grooming a baby otter is a pretty neat experience. It was extremely cute the way she would occasionally try to help me by going through her fur while I was combing. At the end of all this grooming she would be a lot drier and puffier and sometimes sound asleep. It was because of the way her fur would puff out after grooming that I began to call her the Furball. She looked like a puff ball of fur when dry. She wouldn’t have a name for several months so rather than call her the baby, pup, or quarantine otter which sounded so sterile I started to refer to her as the Furball.

Feeding the little otter was a lot easier than I thought. Instead of an impatient little critter whining and fidgeting around like the sea lion pups I once helped raise in San Pedro many years ago during my marine mammal rescue days, she would instead patiently float right next to me as I placed small portions of clam and shrimp on her chest. Occasionally after she would finish one piece of food she would calmly extend her paws outward waiting for the next piece. She reminded me of a football player waiting to catch a punt.

It was a memorable first night together. When Rob Mortensen, assistant curator of birds and mammals at the Aquarium of the Pacific, stopped by the next morning to check on us he found the little otter sound asleep next to me.

This would be the start of many nights that the Furball (eventually she would end up with the name Gidget) and I would spend together over the next few months.

During the orphan sea otter pup’s first fall season at the Aquarium of the Pacific, I would spend three to four nights a week caring for her in addition to spending the day with her on my regular Saturday shift. Being a volunteer with a full time “regular” job, this meant that sometimes after work I would head straight home to get a few hours of sleep and then drive the twenty miles down to the Aquarium from my home in Fullerton for the overnight sea otter sitting session. After my shift I would take a quick shower at the Aquarium and then change into my business clothes and head off to work at my office in Cypress. Another scenario was for me to head straight to the Aquarium after work, change to my Aquarium uniform and then have a vending machine dinner consisting of chips and days old sandwiches while watching the Furball enjoy her select pieces of gourmet quality shrimp and clams.

Was it worth going through all this trouble just to help care for an orphan sea otter pup? You bet it was worth it! I had the pleasure of watching her grow up and got to observe her personality as it evolved day by day. While she started off as a shy clingy pup she soon became a curious, innovative, and bold otter. At the start of every shift we had to do a survey of the tank because Gidget had a habit of trying to unscrew the bolts that held the drain cover in place. A couple of times she managed to take one completely off. I thought that this was amazing she could do this as I had to use a wrench to do the same thing! One of the more otter savvy of the staff, Michele Sousa told me that taking things apart is what sea otters do. They continuously checked out every nook and cranny around them with their paws looking for food or things that interest them even if that means tearing something apart.

While Gidget was comfortable with the people who were regularly watching over her, she was very nervous of new people who came into the holding area. This told me that the Furball Gidget could recognize individuals. Even on days when it was raining and only the faces of the caretakers were visible underneath raincoats she could tell who was new versus who was her regular babysitter. I also discovered that she had great eyesight. The Furball was always intrigued when the Goodyear blimp would fly over her outdoor area. She would look up and stare at it in apparent wonderment. Then one day another blimp flew overhead and she let out a loud “WHOA!” (her cry actually sounded like the little robot in the movie “WALL-E”). When I looked up to see why she sounded her alarm I noticed that this particular airship had a large cartoon dog displayed on its nose. She was spooked by a Snoopy logo on the blimp.

Eventually, just like a mother otter, we started to wean the Furball off of resting on our legs in the water and having us groom her. She was getting bigger and she had to learn to do more on her own. However this didn’t stop her from wanting to be lying right next to me to groom herself whenever I sat on the island in the holding tank. I figured it gave her a sense of security to be close by me while out of the water.

Finally the day came when the Furball was introduced to the Aquarium’s sea otter exhibit for the first time. I must admit that I felt like a proud parent when I watched her dive into the exhibit amongst all the kelp fronds and fish that decorated her new home. My fondest memory of that day was being outside the exhibit where guests usually stand and having Gidget swim over and gaze at me through the glass with a happy look of recognition that only comes from an animal that you’ve really had a good relationship with. At that moment I knew that all the nights I sacrificed while caring for this orphan sea otter pup was worth it.

I’ve written a bi-weekly blog for the Aquarium of the Pacific’s website since 2007 and many of them during the past four years have been about my interactions with Gidget. With titles such as Adventures in Otter Space, Otter Life Lessons, and Why I Love The Furball, Gidget’s life story is well documented in words, images, and videos. I was fortunate that the staff allowed me to continue working with the Furball, along with the Aquarium’s other sea otters after she moved to the main exhibit. I was the first Aquarium volunteer to be allowed to work directly with these cute but potentially unpredictable animals.

Gidget has been my stress reliever during her time at the Aquarium. The times I’ve spent during training and enrichment (play) sessions with her have become some of the “happy places” in my mind. The Furball has a distinct look when she sees someone she feels comfortable around. Her eyes widen and her face softens as she stares at you.

One incident highlighted the special relationship between this otter and me. One of the practical behaviors taught to the sea otters of the Aquarium is to dive down into the water and retrieve objects when asked by the trainer. This is used with toys tossed into the water or when training items such as target poles and vitamin syringes are accidentally dropped into the exhibit. One Saturday a small L-shaped hex wrench was dropped into the water while some maintenance was being done in the exhibit. Three veteran otters were sent down to find it. Gidget and I were watching this from the other end of the exhibit. All these otters came back empty handed despite numerous attempts. If they couldn’t find it the trainers would have to take the otters off exhibit and don wetsuits to enter the cold water to search for themselves. With the continued failure of the older otters their trainers were beginning to look a bit frustrated so I called out “let us try.” As I brought her over, partly kidding and partly serious, I said “Gidget loves me. She’ll find it for me.” Looking a little skeptical, the professionals moved their otters out of the way.

Twice I sent Gidget down, and twice she came back empty handed. After the second try I held the palms of my hand up and out to the side in a “what-was-that?” look. On the next dive I could see her using her dexterous paws to search in the crevices of the rock facade at the bottom of the exhibit. She stayed under for what seemed like a very long time. When she came back up I couldn’t see anything in her paws so I figured she had failed again. Just as I was doing my “what-was-that?” expression again, from under her armpits she pulled out the missing wrench. After she handed it to me, I proudly held it up for all to see and said “Look what the Furball found!” “I don’t believe it”, said one trainer. After the failure of the older otters, the success of this young otter was a surprise to them. It was the proudest moment that the Furball and I had together. A volunteer and his young otter succeeded where the professionals and their more experienced otters did not.

This winter her story comes full circle. Since Gidget stranded at 10 weeks old at Morro Bay, she was too old to take part in the surrogate otter program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Otter Research and Conservation (SORAC) program. Ironically, the orphaned pup is being groomed herself to become a foster mom in SORAC. Because of her good natured personality she is considered a prime candidate to help raise orphan sea otter pups with the wonderful goal of returning them to the wild. I can’t think of a finer epilogue to my Adventures in Otter Space with the Furball than this.

Adventures in Otter Space
First night grooming Gidget.
Adventures in Otter Space
The Furball seemed to enjoy being groomed when she was just a pup.
Adventures in Otter Space
A "formal" shot of me and the Furball. Actually Gidget is floating close to me because she didn't recognize the person taking the picture at first.  | Pam Ryono
Adventures in Otter Space
Happiness is knowing a Sea Otter. Love That Furball!  | Robin Riggs

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