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Otter Life Lessons

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Animal Updates | Mammals | Volunteering

Thursday, September 27, 2012


Observations from Otter Space

Sea Otters are super cool animals. Since starting my Adventures in Otter Space with the experience of raising Furball, aka Gidget, the orphaned pup several years ago I’ve learned a lot about sea otters. I’ve also learned a lot from them. Here are some Otter Life Lessons to ponder.


While playing with a Frisbee Ollie noticed another toy at the bottom of the exhibit that she also wanted to have. She had a dilemma. If she let go of the disk it would float away and another otter might steal it. If she took it down with her she wouldn’t be able to pick up the toy at the bottom as her paws would be full. What was her solution? Using a principle of Fluid Dynamics Ollie pressed the concave side of the disk onto the glass of the viewing window forcing air out from underneath creating a difference in air pressure. This produced a suction between the Frisbee and the smooth glass surface causing the disk to stick to the glass like a suction cup. Ollie was then able to dive down and pick up the toy while the Frisbee stayed safely secured to the glass. When she returned to the disk she then pried it off the glass and had both toys in her possession.


Gidget was curious about what was under the drain cover in her holding pad. Problem was there were wrench tightened nuts on strong bolts holding it on. How do you get the bolts off without a tool? What was Gidget’s answer? Persistence! Gidget would dive down to the drain and while using just her paws she would try to lessen the torque on the nut ever so slightly. Over a day there wouldn’t be any evidence of progress. But over several days the torque of the nut would be lessened to the point that it would rotate on its threads. What amazes me is that otters know the old technician axiom “Lefty Loosey; Righty Tighty” and turned the nut in the correct direction. Eventually the nut would come off and she could then check out underneath the cover. This is why one of the duties of the Aquarium’s husbandry staff is to constantly check every single fastener in the exhibit and holding pad for otter tampering.


Brook loves shrimp and clams. However squid to her is like broccoli to a little kid even though it’s part of a balanced diet for otters. To get her to eat squid the trainers use a little positive reinforcement. When she eats a bit of squid she gets a reward of several pieces of clam and shrimp. Sort of like offering dessert if a kid eats his vegetables. Well Brook sometimes gets around this by a little sleight of hand. She’ll accept a piece of squid while floating on her back and then make like she’s about to eat it. Just before she takes a bite she does a barrel roll in the water as if she’s clearing the residual shrimp shells off her belly. When she completes her roll her paws are up as if saying I’ve eaten the squid now give me my reward. What the trainer didn’t see was that Brook had released the squid while upside down and was just pretending that she ate it. It’s about the time that the trainer throws a handful of clams into her paws that they’ll notice the squid sinking to the bottom and realize that they’ve been duped.


Male otters can be quite aggressive with female otters. Part of the otter mating ritual is for the male otter to bite and hold onto the nose of the female otter. Because of this when Gidget was first introduced to Charlie, then the Aquarium’s only male otter, it was under a closely supervised setting in the holding pad. Gidget, being a fearless young rambunctious otter at the time didn’t see Charlie as a potential aggressor. She saw him instead as a playmate. She immediately jumped on top of Charlie and playfully pawed and nudged him. It took Charlie completely by surprise. He was used to submissive females. This aggressive little female overwhelmed his natural tendencies. It got to the point where despite his instincts he mostly tried to keep his distances from Gidget. Gidget’s nose suffered no damage during the introduction period. Charlie on the other hand had to have his diet increased. All the attention from the playful young female was causing him to lose weight!


Watch an otter for very long and you get the feeling that they go through life with the question “What If?” constantly on their mind. When Ollie was still in the holding pad we use to give her muscles on the half shell to eat. Later we would go through the pad and retrieve all the empty shells. One day a staffer looked through every nook and cranny in the holding pad after a mussel session and couldn’t find a single shell. Where the heck did they go? Suspiciously outside the pad on the ground were shells. How did they get there? After the next mussel treat session the staffer pulled up a chair outside the pad and waited. It didn’t take long before shells started hitting the ground. Here’s what happened: When Ollie found herself with all the empty shells in the pool she thought to herself “How can I have fun with all these mussel shells?” What if I push them out that little hole between the upper deck and the tank? So like a basketball player Ollie would rise up out of the water repeatedly with a shell in her paw and dunk it through the hole. She actually made a game out of cleaning her pad by asking “What if?”


The staff will sometimes give individual otters what they call a “Spa Day”. This is where an otter is given the run of the back holding area of the otter exhibit by themselves as a stress relieving day. Spread out on the floor are piles of ice with shrimp, clams and crab legs buried underneath. There are also PVC pipes with shrimp and clams inside and end caps screwed in on both ends. When Brook was given a Spa Day earlier this year she picked up a few treats from the ice but immediately turned her attention to the PVC pipes when she discovered them. She knew there were goodies inside and started exploring ways to reach them. First she tried banging it against the floor to no avail. Then she took it into the water and with a slightly different angle started banging it against the wall. This started to loosen the cap. After several impacts she then took her strong paws and started twisting the end of the pipe until finally the end cap came off and she could reach the food inside. Why would an otter go through all the trouble of trying to open the pipe when there were much more easily obtainable treats in the ice? For a thinking animal like an otter the challenge of figuring out how to open the pipe was far more fun than just picking through the ice like a buffet.


There are certain staffers that individual otters tend to feel the most comfortable around. For Brook it is senior mammalogist Michele and assistant curator Rob who she’s worked with the longest. For Gidget on the other hand, at least on Saturdays, it’s me. I’ve been with the Furball since the day she arrived at the Aquarium of the Pacific as an abandoned pup. For her first two weeks I was there nearly every night caring for her on the overnight shifts and that’s where the bond started. (Check out the story of her growing up.) Gidget has gone through a couple of name changes over the years Furball-Maggie-Gidget but our relationship hasn’t changed. Years later it’s kind of nice to see the look of recognition in Gidget’s eyes when I enter the exhibit. We click well together and are both mostly relaxed during a session even when working on some potentially stressful husbandry behaviors. I’ve also done many Aquarium of the Pacific blogs and videos featuring her. This lead to an interesting comment that an Aquarium guest said to me recently after an otter show. “I read your blog. You’re the Furball’s ‘Otter Pop’. You were just feeding her!” Gidget’s Otter Pop? I guess in a way I am. LOVE THAT FURBALL!

Otter Life Lessons
Don't let the cute and innocent face fool you. Brook is a master at sleight of hand and has a talent for acting that can fool even the best staffer.  | Hugh Ryono
Otter Life Lessons
With dexterous paws and nearly unlimited persistence an otter can dismantle just about any man-made object given enough time.  | Hugh Ryono
Otter Life Lessons
Otters love to ask the question "What if?" in their mind. Here a young Ollie asks what if I push on this kennel door?  | Hugh Ryono
Otter Life Lessons
Gidget and her "Otter Pop". Me with the otter that started my Adventures in Otter Space years ago.  | Robin Riggs

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