Sea Otter pup floats on backIn Shedd’s sea otter nursery, animal care experts are working around the clock in two 12-hour shifts to attend to the needs of Shedd’s latest addition, a southern sea otter pup. Like parents of a newborn baby, they must keep to a rigorous schedule of feedings, cleanups, playtime and naps—plus swimming lessons and intensive grooming sessions to keep the pup’s thick fur clean, dry and insulating. In place of diapers, the marine mammal department’s washer and dryer keep spinning out clean towels, and lots of them.

But Shedd’s staffers have the routine down pat. This is the ninth orphaned or abandoned sea otter pup to call Shedd home; the first four arrived in 1989 after the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster. Since then, Shedd has distinguished itself as one of only a handful of U.S. aquariums and zoos that have the facilities and the expertise to care for these high-risk, high-maintenance pups.

But the stakes are even higher in the case of this little animal. While Shedd’s other otters have come  from Alaskan waters, she is a member of the endangered California sea otter population, which numbers fewer than 3,000 animals and has failed to increase despite decades of federal and state protection.

The pup was about 5 weeks old when, in mid-December, wildlife rescuers found her alone and calling for her mother on a California beach. Shedd animal care staffers quickly joined their colleagues at Monterey Bay Aquarium to help stabilize and begin rehabilitating the pup.

At the beginning of the year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued Shedd a permit to house the otter as part of the federal conservation effort for southern sea otters, and within days she was settled in at the aquarium. The marine mammals staffers called the pup Cayucos (kye-YOO-cohs) after the beach where she was rescued, continuing a long Shedd tradition of naming sea otters after the geographic location where they were found.

Ken Ramirez, executive vice president of animal care and training, says that the otter—now 10 weeks old and weighing nearly 15 pounds—is acclimating well in Shedd’s specially designed pup pool, added to the Regenstein Sea Otter Cove and Nursery during the 2009 renovation of the Abbott Oceanarium. “She is achieving new milestones every day, including taking formula from a bottle and eating solid foods, such as shrimp and clams. With her progress, we hope to be able to introduce her to the public this summer.”

But we hope Cayucos will also benefit southern sea otters. Ken says, “Having her in our care will further what marine mammal scientists know about her threatened wild relatives along the Southern California coastline and contribute valuable insight to ongoing conservation efforts for sea otter populations all over the world.”

But first it’s time to warm up another bottle of squid-and-half-and-half puree and pull another load of grooming towels out of the dryer.

Stay tuned for more updates on Cayucos's progress.

—Karen Furnweger, web editor