Thursday, May 20, 2010
The little female otter pup was whining as I entered the quarantine tank in the Aquarium of the Pacific’s behind the scenes area. 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. 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 given her the skills, the orphan was fortunate to have found an adopted home in Long Beach with the Aquarium.
While getting into the waders that would allow me to join her in the shallow water of the 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”.
Being such a young otter, for her first few months at the Aquarium the staff would keep an around-the-clock watch on her. She also needed to be fed several times day and night. 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.
At first after I climbed down into the tank, I stood still in the water and let the Furball (at this time she did not have a name) swim around my waders to get used to me being with her. Her whimpers stopped as she felt secure having someone around with her. I then moved over to a little island set up in the tank that allowed the otter a place to haul out and allowed me to sit down. It was going to be a long eight hour shift for me so it was nice to be able 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 awhile. In addition it provided a safe harbor for the otter. I was surprised when the Furball came over to me and used my wader legs as a breakwater to float and snooze out of the circulation currents of the tank.
The Furball 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 awhile. As soon as she noticed I was gone and headed up onto the deck she started to whimper and then whine until I got back into the water with her. The vocals of whining baby otter is 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. As a side note I now use her whine as my ringtone on my cell phone. It definitely gets my attention when someone calls!
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, the Furball would haul out onto my floating legs as I sat on the island and proceed 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 hauling 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 to have. 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 buff out after grooming that I began to call her the Furball. She looked like a puff ball of fur when dry.
Feeding the little otter was a lot easier than I thought it would be. Instead of an impatient little critter whining and fidgeting around like the sea lion pups I once helped raised in San Pedro many years ago, 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, the assistant curator of birds and mammals, 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 was named “Maggie” by the staff) and I would spend together over the next few months.
Below is a video showing some way too cute clips from my first week with the orphan sea otter pup. And stay tuned for part two of Adventures in “Otter” Space coming up in two weeks.
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