Wednesday, December 05, 2007
Charlie, the Aquarium of the Pacific’s male sea otter is a world famous animal. Why? Because Charlie is admired internationally by marine mammal professionals as the first sea otter to give a voluntary blood draw. This is a husbandry behavior that was trained to allow our vet to take blood samples from Charlie without causing undue stress to the otter and to our staff. Normally, sea otters don’t take kindly to having needles stuck into their skins so the animals have to be physically restrained while blood is drawn. Charlie on the other hand is so food motivated that he has been trained to stay perfectly calm while a needle is inserted under his fur knowing that a jackpot of clams and shrimp awaits him after the procedure. It’s like visiting the dentist and knowing you’re going to get a lollipop at the end of getting a cavity filled. Other zoological institutions have requested documentation and video of how our otters are trained because of Charlie’s fame. Brook, one of the Aquarium's female otters, is also famous world-wide in a much different way---as the light-saber wielding Darth Otter which she portrayed in a <a href="http://www.aquariumofpacific.org/multimedia_files/video/Darth_Otter_two.mov" title="just-for-fun video clip parodying Star Wars">just-for-fun video clip parodying Star Wars</a>. In the video, a Jedi Knight confronts his old Jedi Master (Brook). This short sequence has Brook swinging a special effects added light saber while dueling with one of our staff dressed up like a Jedi. One day a few years ago I had noticed that the way Brook stood upright with her paws close together looked a lot like she was in a sword fighting stance so on a whim I staged an impromptu scene parodying Star Wars. All Brook had to do was act natural. The trainer that I enlisted into the scene did most of the acting. Everything else was added later on my computer. It was initially shown that year as a silent 15 second clip for an international marine mammal trainer’s conference. It’s gotten a sort of cult following ever since. It had a repeat performance at another marine mammal conference last year. I’ve even had people argue that Brook isn’t really an otter but is instead actually an Ewok. And with the new generation of Star Wars fans, some refer to her character as Sith Otter. Summer, the Aquarium's other female otter, may not be famous but she is the most distinctive sea otter in the aquarium. Our youngest is familiar to guests as the otter with the big nose and to long time Aquarium staff as the otter with the whiny voice. When Summer first arrived at the Aquarium, she was placed in a quarantine pool in the behind the scenes area of the facility. Back then Aquarium staff would have to walk past her pen on the way to work. What greeted them each morning was an ear piercing, whiny whistle from Summer announcing that she was ready to be waited upon. Before she was formally named Summer, I used to refer to the whiny otter as “Screamer” after a friend's cat I once knew. She still occasionally gives that shrill whistle-like scream when she wants something. One of Summer’s engaging behaviors is her fondness for playing in the ice that the staff piles in the exhibit for enrichment. She’ll rub her fur into the ice and actually take the ice in her paws and fling the cubes into the air in apparent bliss. It’s extremely cute, especially in slow motion on video.
One of my early morning duties is preparing the food for these otters. It seems simple enough. Pull a bunch of clams, shrimp, fish fillets and squid out of the freezer, thaw and serve. Well, with these otters it’s not quite that simple. You have to be like a master sushi chef with your kitchen knife as you try to please your picky furry customers. Charlie likes his clams cut in chunky pieces while Brook needs her fish fillets cut lean one week and in larger pieces on another. The squid all need their pens (backbones) pulled out by hand and cut just so for each otter. For dessert, blended clam or shrimp smoothies loaded with vitamins—doesn’t this all sound yummy? And as an extra treat, we sometimes prepare for our spoiled otters an item that can best be described as an ice sushi. An ice cube frozen with a glob of blended clam or shrimp in the middle that is tossed in various places in their exhibit for them to find in a sort of otter Easter egg hunt.
Charlie and Brook have been a part of the Aquarium since way before the Official Grand Opening in June of 1998. Back then our assistant curator Rob cared for them at another facility while they waited for the Aquarium to be built.
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