Kenai_SeaOtterDuring Sea Otter Awareness Week, Sept. 27 through Oct. 3, we’ll introduce you to Shedd’s five sea otters and tell you a little about how we care for and train these high-energy animals. To get a jump on things, someone you otter know is Kenai, the 20-year-old grand dame of the group and an Exxon Valdez oil spill survivor.

For several months after the March 24, 1989 disaster, hundreds of distressed otters were found along the inshore waters and beaches of the Gulf of Alaska as 11 million gallons of 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 cared for 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. But without the survival skills they would have received from their moms, none of the hand-raised otters could be released into the wild. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service selected several zoos and aquariums, including Shedd, to receive pups for exhibit.

On Halloween night 1989, four nearly grown sea otters arrived at Shedd. They romped into a temporary habitat in a gallery until their Oceanarium home was ready in 1991. The three females – Kenai, Nikishka and Nuka – and the one male – Chenik – were named for geographic locations on Kenai Peninsula, where they all were found. Sadly, Chenik, who experienced the most harrowing rescue, had lifelong health problems. He died in 1997. (All of the otters were part of a long-term medical study of the oil-spill pups.) Nikishka passed away last year at the advanced age of 19. Now, 20 years after the spill, only four oil-spill survivors remain. Two are Shedd’s otters. Nuka moved to the Seattle Aquarium in 2001 in a breeding exchange that brought us Yaku, a male that is the offspring of Exxon Valdez survivors.

And Kenai. While she has a lot of white fur on her head, that’s typical of many adult otters and not a sign of old age. Naturally Kenai has slowed down a little. Sometimes she chooses not to take part in play sessions, although she still enjoys training sessions and the food rewards that go along with them. And while she never had a pup, through the years she has been a protective surrogate mother toward young otters that came into the collection, especially caring for Kiana, another orphan found on an Alaska beach.

Kenai has exceeded the known life expectancy of sea otters by two to five years. A healthy diet, lifelong training and state-of-the-art veterinary care seem to have more than made up for her stressful beginnings. We’ll look at some of the aspects of the sea otters’ lives at Shedd in upcoming posts during Sea Otter Awareness Week.

Posted by Karen Furnweger, web editor