otter being fed by trainerHalloween night, 1989. We stood outside, bundled against the cold, waiting for some real treats: four sea otter pups for Shedd, arriving by cargo jet at O’Hare International Airport.

The otters’ arrival in Chicago was the end of a long, arduous experience that began in March of that year when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, disgorging 11 million gallons of North Slope crude into waters and shorelines teeming with wildlife—including the season’s newborn sea otters.

Shedd’s four, which ranged in age from a few weeks to a few months when they were picked up, had been orphaned, or abandoned or rejected by their mothers. They were taken to a sea otter rescue center set up in Seward. (The first pup was kept by rescuers in a hotel bathtub for a week, until the center opened.) The little otters needed around-the-clock care, which continued when, in September, they transferred with their caregivers, including a Shedd marine mammal trainer, to a rehabilitation facility set up at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington. By that time, the otters had tripled to quadrupled in weight, with the largest, a 35-pound female, at about two-thirds adult size.

otter inside dog kennel at airportOn Oct. 31, at Sea-Tac Airport, four extra-large dog kennels were the last items carefully loaded through the nose section of a cargo jet as the otters began the final leg of their odyssey. Riding with them were Shedd’s curator of marine mammals, the trainer and the aquarium’s consulting veterinarian. The jet’s crew kept the interior at a nippy 40 degrees, while ice packs under the kennels and blocks of ice inside were extra insurance that the otters didn’t overheat. In fact, they slept or ate during the flight. (Remember in-flight meals? This one was clam.)

At O’Hare’s freight terminal, whoops of welcome from those of us on the tarmac were drowned out by the jet’s engines. The nose cone slowly swung up, a scissors lift rose, and the kennels were gently slid into the night air. On the van ride to Shedd, the two youngest otters each poked a paw through its kennel door grid to be held reassuringly by the trainer. But once in the water—in a gallery reserve pool, because the Oceanarium was still under construction—the four sea otters made it very clear that they considered themselves to be home.

That was almost 21 years ago. Sea otters have a natural life span of about 15 years. But one of those four—Kenai, named for the area where she was rescued—is still part of Shedd’s sea otter population and going strong.

picking up the sea ottersVisit Shedd during Sea Otter Awareness Week, a project of Defenders of Wildlife, Sept. 26 through Oct. 2, to learn more about sea otters, their role in nearshore marine ecosystems and the conservation challenges they face. We’ll have special chats twice a day at the sea otter habitat, blogs about our otters here on the website and stickers for kids who visit throughout the week.

Posted by Karen Furnweger, web editor

Editor's note: Kenai died in October 2012 at the remarkable age of 23½ years old. She was the next-to-the-last surviving sea otter from the Exxon Valdez oil spill.