As one of the pup team’s around-the-clock shifts was changing, trainer Christy Sterling took a few minutes to talk about our newest southern sea otter and the care she receives. Christy, whose official title is assistant supervisor of penguins and otters, has helped care for Shedd’s rescued sea otter pups since the arrival of Kiana in 2005. In addition to the experience, the work has given her a lot of perspective.
“This pup is very independent,” Christy says. “When she’s active, she’s active. She dives and picks things up off the bottom of her pool”—the 1,249-gallon pup pool in the Regenstein Sea Otter Nursery located behind the scenes in the Abbott Oceanarium. “When we put her kelp sheets on the pool deck, she’ll pull them into the water and swim through the kelp strands.”
The “kelp” Christy refers to are sheets of heavy-duty felt car wash strips. Despite their bright purple and blue colors, the strips are a convincing stand-in for the real thing. Before mom sea otter heads out to forage for food, she wraps, or “parks,” her pup in long, shiny dark brown strands of kelp that anchor, conceal and comfort the little one. With the benefit of four weeks of her mother’s care in the wild, Pup 719 knows just what to do with the felt strips.
“When she is hauled out on deck,” Christy continues, “the pup will bury herself in the strips, curl up and groom. She takes almost all of her naps on a bed of kelp if she hasn’t pulled it into the water. But she does pull it into the water, swim through the strips, bite them, pull on them, wrap herself in them and anchor herself.” Trainers attached dive weights to some of the purple fronds to create a mini kelp forest for the pup. “It’s like furniture in a nursery,” Christy says.
Video Credit: ©Monterey Bay Aquarium
The pup is already adept at hopping in and out of the pool without the ramp usually provided to young otters. She’s also good at grooming. “I think her great grooming skills come from what her mom must have taught her,” Christy says. “Luna needed our assistance to take care of most of her grooming, and she’d help us out. Pup 719 has it covered, and we might work on a spot she can’t reach.”
Also unlike other rescued pups that have come to Shedd, even older ones, 719 was already eating solid food when she arrived from Monterey Bay Aquarium in late January. “That’s different,” the trainer says. “She was on a limited amount of clam formula, but she quickly weaned herself. I never got to give her a bottle—not like I didn’t want to!—but she totally refused.”
Instead the pup eagerly grabbed the small pieces of squid and capelin as well as shelled clam and shrimp that Christy and other team members handed her. “She’s still getting peeled shrimp, but a larger size than what we’d give newborns. And we’ve added pollock to her diet.”
Like any young otter, however, Pup 719 still needs to consume the equivalent of 30 percent of her weight—13 pounds and increasing—every day. Right now the pup is fed six times a day, although Christy notes that her schedule is dynamic and constantly evolving. As 719 develops, she’ll consume more food in fewer meals. The overnight staff prepares her food for the upcoming day so that team members on the other shifts only have to weigh the chopped seafood right before the pup is fed.
The pup’s day starts with breakfast around 6 a.m. “She’ll eat, then play, dive, be active, take a nice nap after all that activity, wake up and repeat the process, pretty much like any baby mammal,” Christy says. At some point, however, the little otter needs a longer recharge than a nap. Just as her feeding schedule is changing, so is her “quiet time.” “She sleeps through the night now, about seven hours. But we’re still here around the clock, and we peek in on her, discreetly but regularly, during the night.”
Pup 719 brought a small purple Frisbee from Monterey Bay Aquarium, but the Shedd trainers had plenty of playthings waiting for her. (Inquisitive, hyperactive sea otters can never have too many toys: The adults have a 25-foot-long “toy cave” behind their habitat stocked with scores of goodies to occupy their paws and stimulate their minds.)
“We had new toys that she’d never seen, so she’d pick them up, sniff them and investigate, but we didn’t have to encourage her to play. She was pretty curious,” Christy says. Some of the pup’s favorites include standard-issue stackable cups (“She can have baby toys, but they have to be sturdy baby toys”), plus enrichment items unique to zoos and aquariums like feeder balls—hollow balls with almost-paw-sized perforations that can be stuffed with seafood to dig out—and hard resin abalone shells that can be filled with food and water and frozen. The food toys hold the pup’s attention—for as long as the food lasts—as well as help her develop dexterity and foraging skills.
“Besides the fact that she’s completely cute,” Christy says, “it’s just so fun to watch her explore with boundless energy.”
Learn more about Pup 719 and read about the otters’ toy cave. You can help support our top-quality care of sea otters and all the animals at Shedd by symbolically adopting an otter.
—Karen Furnweger, web editor