Sea Otters swimmingNo one could have planned it in 1988: that Shedd would become a leader in rehabbing and raising sea otter infants, and in training these frisky, feisty cousins of weasels. No inland aquarium or zoo even had sea otters then.

But Shedd was building a marine mammal pavilion featuring a re-creation of the rugged coast of the Pacific Northwest, and it wouldn’t be authentic without sea otters.

So the plan was to acquire six wild sea otters in Alaskan waters in spring of 1990, just before the scheduled opening of the Oceanarium, and a permit application was filed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has jurisdiction over sea otters.

Image of Exxon ValdezOn March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez, which was carrying more than 11 million gallons of crude oil, ran aground and ruptured in Prince William Sound. If you were around then, you remember the images: birds, otters and other wildlife coated in toxic, suffocating, life-draining black gunk. Ken Ramirez and Jim Robinett sure do.

Ken, now executive vice president of animal care and training, and Jim, senior vice president of external and regulatory affairs, were sent by Shedd to help with the sea otter rescue and rehabilitation effort in Valdez, Alaska. Back then, they managed the nascent marine mammal department.

Image of Otter Rescue CenterThe first four days of their 13-day stay they assisted researchers with aerial surveys of otter populations to monitor the impact of the oil spill, at one time flying directly over the still-leaking Exxon Valdez. Then they headed to the Otter Rescue Center, where they pooled their talents with other aquarium and zoo professionals—and hundreds more volunteers from all walks of life—in the around-the-clock rescue and rehabilitation effort.

The makeshift rescue center occupied the town high school’s gym, three trailers and the surrounding parking lot. It looked like a combination animal hospital, frontier boomtown and beauty salon.

Image inside Sea Otter Rescue Center“There were hair dryers everywhere,” Ken said at the time. Teams of rehabbers, armed with hair dryers, bath towels and cases of dishwashing detergent (a brand that now prides itself on its alternative use in oil-spill animal rescues), degunked newly arrived animals. Outside, row upon row of quickly built but sturdy cages housed recuperating otters. Large stand-up dryers kept the animals warm. About 50 otters were being cared for while Ken and Jim were there.

Image of Sea Otter Rescue Center temporary crates that held rescued animalsAnd there were people, as many as 600 at a time, filling the three 8-hour shifts. In addition to veterinarians, vet technicians, and aquarium and zoo professionals, people helped as secretaries, janitors, kitchen crew preparing endless pans of fish, squid and shrimp, security guards and carpenters building or repairing pens.

The operation was funded by Exxon and run by sea otter experts from the Sea World Research Institute in San Diego.

For the rest of their stay, Ken and Jim were put to work as otter handlers, either washing animals that had been brought in by the center’s field team or tending cleaned-up animals. Jim observed that most of the animals they handled were only slightly oiled and had a good chance of survival, but many of the oil-drenched otters that came in immediately after the spill had died.

Their first day, five otters came in. After a preliminary exam by a vet, each otter was sedated, for the safety of the otter and the handlers. A team of six people then set to work on the two-hour cleaning process. “The washing was done with a mild detergent that was thoroughly worked into the fur,” Ken said in a 1989 interview. “During the process, a veterinarian was available, regularly taking the otter’s temperature. We were concerned the animal could become hypothermic after the fur was washed.” Sea otters depend on their dense fur—the thickest in the animal kingdom—to keep them warm and dry. If water penetrates the overcoat of guard hairs and downy underfur to the skin, an otter’s body temperature will fall to fatal levels.

Image of Sea Otter Rescue Center worker taking care of a sea otterSudsing took about 40 minutes on the 20- to 65-pound adults. After handlers were sure the oil was out, they rinsed the otter for 40 minutes with warm water, again monitoring its temperature. After the rinse, the animal was tube-fed fluids with an antibiotic, tagged on the right rear foot and towel dried. Finally, with one person holding the otter’s head, two others blow-dried the fur.

The entire procedure, down to brand of detergent and rinse times, had been established several years earlier by Sea World researchers as a precaution against an oil spill that might threaten the small sea otter population in California’s waters.

When an otter was grooming itself well and swimming strong, it was moved to one of the sea pens constructed in the Valdez harbor, where it could be in the water all the time but still be observed. From there, it was moved to a local fish hatchery, which provided a protected but natural saltwater environment. The hatchery was the last stop before release back into a non-oiled wild area.

Sea Otter pup floating on its backThe few pups that showed up presented more of a challenge. Some were orphaned, others had been rejected by their stressed mothers. None had the life skills they’d need to survive in the wild. “The challenge,” Ken said, recalling the experience for the 10th annual Sea Otter Awareness Week, “was that we had to invent methods for rehabbing on the spot.”

The pups had to be hand-raised—24 hours a day. The littlest ones were tube-fed formula every two hours to provide them with enough food—equal to 30 percent of their body each day. As they grew, the pups could be bottle-fed and then they were transitioned to solid foods. Meals were spread out to every four hours.

The pups also had to learn to float. They were placed in shallow kiddie pools for no more than 10 minutes at a time, or their fur would get soaked. Then they were groomed with towels and hair dryers. The pups required constant grooming—same as mom would do. And because sea otters are social animals, the pups got a lot of attention during playtime.

Due to the spill, Shedd's permit to acquire adult otters was not granted. Instead, while Ken and Jim were still in Alaska, they were asked how many sea otter pups they’d like to take back to Shedd. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had to find qualified homes for the pups once the little otters could leave intensive care. Four pups at a second otter rescue center that had opened in Seward were selected for Shedd. One of the newly hired marine mammal trainers traveled to Alaska to work with the otters. When Exxon closed the otter rescue facilities in summer 1989, the pups and their caregivers were provided space by Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington. Meanwhile, with the completion of the Oceanarium still more than a year away, Shedd outfitted a double habitat for the otters in a saltwater gallery. On Halloween night 1989, four furry goblins plunged into their temporary habitat, ushering in a new era at Shedd.

But that’s another story.

Karen Furnweger, web editor