Sea Otter floating on its backKenai, Shedd’s last surviving sea otter from the Exxon Valdez oil spill, was humanely euthanized Tuesday morning after a rapid decline in health. She was 23½ years old, an extraordinary age for her species.

Kenai (KEE-nye) also held the honor of being one of the last two sea otters, along with a female at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington, that had been rescued as pups after the oil spill.

“She had bounced back from a lot of challenges in her life, starting with the oil spill, then a stroke about seven years ago, an ovarian cyst that was removed, a root canal,” said Ken Ramirez, executive vice president of animal care and training. “All those things she dealt with in life and overcame.”

For several months after the March 24, 1989, environmental disaster, hundreds of distressed otters were found along the inshore waters and beaches of the Gulf of Alaska as 11 million gallons of crude oil spread from the site of the spill in Prince William Sound southwest toward the Kenai Peninsula and beyond. So many oiled otters were showing up downcurrent that a second rescue center (the first was in Valdez) was set up in Seward.

On April 30, before the Seward center opened, rescuers found a pup weighing less than 10 pounds and her oil-coated mother. The mom died, and the pup, which was not oiled, was tended to by a sea otter biologist in the bathtub of a hotel room until the rescue facility opened a week later. The little female joined a dozen other newborn, orphaned, or abandoned pups in a 24-hour intensive care nursery. As they grew, the bottle-fed pups had to learn to eat solid food, swim and groom their dense fur to keep it waterproof.

Sea Otters swimming in waterBut while rescued adult otters could be rehabbed and released back into clean waters in the wild, the hand-raised pups lacked the survival skills they would have received from their moms. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service selected several North American zoos and aquariums, including Shedd, to receive pups for exhibit.

Sea Otters in the arms of their trainersKenai was one of a quartet of young otters entrusted to Shedd for its new Oceanarium. Until the Pacific Northwest coast exhibit opened, the energetic sea otters—the first at an inland aquarium—entertained guests with their speed and agility in a double-wide saltwater gallery habitat. They were still playful enough to be carried in the arms of trainers when they made their big move to the 40,000-gallon sea otter habitat just before the Oceanarium opened in April 1991.

Through the years, as Shedd received more orphaned sea otter pups from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Kenai took on the role of protective surrogate mother. She was especially attached to Kiana, another orphan found on an Alaska beach, who arrived at Shedd in 2005.

Lisa Takaki, senior director of marine mammals, noted, “She was a little too old to do much with our newest pup, Cayucos, but she was still very tolerant of her. Cayucos would go between bouts of playing with the other animals and floating next to Kenai and grooming. She would just hang out with her.” Lisa said that the younger adult otters can play pretty rough, and Cayucos felt secure with the matriarch of the group. 

Kenai also enjoyed the company of Kachemak, another oldster, with whom she often shared the otter exhibit reserve pool.

Sea Otter with trainerThe typical life expectancy of sea otters is 15 to 18 years. As Kenai advanced beyond that, she remained healthy and active, although cataracts and arthritis slowed her down a little in recent years and she took part in play sessions less often. In 2010, she had a root canal procedure performed on a cracked upper canine—an essential tooth for crunching and chewing her food. Thanks to the dental work, she was able to continue to enjoy her seafood meals, except capelin, for which she had a distinct distaste.

For the last week, however, the sea otter had not been eating much and her energy level had sagged. A physical exam and blood work indicated that the geriatric otter was failing. “There was not a lot we could do to reverse the course,” Ken said, “but she seemed comfortable, and we provided her with food and medication. But between Monday night and Tuesday morning, her condition worsened. It was the first time we sensed that she was in discomfort, and we tried a procedure to relieve the discomfort, but there wasn’t a lot we could do. We made the difficult decision to let her go peacefully.” Kenai was surrounded by Ken, Lisa and several of the trainers who had cared for her.

Ken was at a loss to pinpoint a favorite recollection. “I have a lot. She’s been here almost as long as I have. I first interacted with her in 1989 during the rescue effort.”

For all of us who became acquainted with Kenai even before she came to Shedd—either in person or through updates from trainers—and who greeted her and the other otters when they landed at O’Hare, walked through Shedd’s doors with her and loved her for more than two decades, it’s a difficult but inevitable goodbye that the resilient sea otter and our talented animal health team could put off for only so long.

Sea Otter floating on her back“She was one of our originals,” said Lisa, “and she was such a survivor.”

“That was the biggest thing,” Ken added, “how she survived so many obstacles in her life. She’d always managed to overcome everything.

“If any animal could fight one more time, it was Kenai. But we also knew she was 23½, and her body just wasn’t going to sustain her anymore.”

•  •  •

Portraits of Kenai through her life, from the top:

Kenai, 2008

Kenai, far right, with Shedd’s other Exxon Valdez survivors, Nikishka (partial view, top), Nuka (center) and Chenik (bottom), and her friend, Kachemak (left), 1990

Kenai, right, and other otters being moved from temporary quarters in the galleries to the new Oceanarium, 1991

Lisa Takaki and Kenai during a training session in the otter habitat pup pool, April 2012

Kenai, April 2012  

Karen Furnweger, web editor