otter toys C and K rockerWhat do a plastic cutting board, car wash strips, a teetertotter and a hard hat have in common? They’re among the scores of otter-proof playthings you’ll find in the sea otter’s “toy cave.”

Lana Vanagasem, manager of sea otters and penguins, recently ushered me into this dimly lighted tunnel formed by the backside of the otter habitat rockwork and the wall of the reserve area. The space lives up to its nickname. But if Santa Claus had a storeroom for toys for good little sea otters, this would be it. 

A staggering array of playthings, laden on shelving units or stored on the floor, stretch along 25 feet of wall. Sea otters can never have too many toys. Every day, the trainers mix up the selection that they place in the Regenstein Sea Otter Habitat and offer for afternoon play sessions behind the scenes to keep the fast-paced otters intrigued and challenged. 

Toys like a 40-inch white disk called the iceberg and different-sized boomer balls—polar bear-proof floating spheres—and feeder balls—boomer balls with holes for hiding treats to fish out—are available from a web-based company that specializes in enrichment items for aquarium and zoo animals. The materials used are food-grade and heavy-duty to withstand powerful jaws and strong claws as well as repeated impacts with habitat rockwork. 

Otter playing with ballOne of the otters’ favorite wildlife toys is a ball inside a ball that has paw-sized cutouts. “They can rattle it to make noise,” says Lana, demonstrating, “or they can play with the ball inside. They love this one.” 

Kong toys for dogs are another sturdy option with the otters’ preferred features: buoyant and bitable. “But we have to be careful who we give them to and where,” the trainer says. “Certain otters will shove the kongs into the inflow or outflow pipes.” 

A lot of the toys are repurposed household items: a plastic cutting board becomes a raft; heavy-duty rubber tubs hold ice cubes or water for chilling and spilling. Empty tubs are for napping. A yellow kiddie car and toddler-sized pink chair can also be filled with ice to play on. Or, like the red teetertotter, they can be rocked, rolled, or just pushed around to make noise. 

Otter playing Playthings with more industrial origins include the “kelp” strips—purple and green car wash strips that the otters love to twirl in the water or snuggle into on land—and hard hats, which female Kiana (the white-faced otter in the photo above with Cayucos) likes to scrape back and forth at manic speed on the play area’s concrete floor. 

But some of the best toys are the ones the trainers invent. One of the most creative is what Lana calls the kabob. Gray resin “abalone shells” and tan resin “bat stars” are loosely skewered on a length of narrow PVC pipe so that the otters can whack them back and forth. 

One creation didn’t live up to its name: the otter bucket of fun. The beach pail is filled with shapes and whirligigs that the trainers use to interact with the otters at the habitat’s underwater window. But the otters are doers, not viewers. 

While it’s hard to predict a fun factor, toys are rigorously vetted for safety by the head trainers. “If they can’t tear it apart, the toy is approved for daytime observation-only use,” Lana says. “Someone has to watch the otters the entire time they have it. If it works out, it becomes a daytime-only toy, but we still monitor how the otters use it. Some toys make it to overnight status, where we’re not around to watch.” Overnight toys include indestructible kelp strips, large boomer and feeder balls, and the cutting board. 

If you haven’t noticed yet, the sea otters are a kinetic, inquisitive, destructive lot. These traits serve them well in the wild. It takes a lot foraging—exploring, digging, scratching, chomping on and tearing up—to find enough crustaceans, shellfish, urchins, squid and slow-moving fishes to stoke the blast-furnace metabolism that helps keep these unblubbered marine mammals warm in icy seas. Pounding is the best way to crack a clam or mussel shell. And precious extra food is stashed in convenient hidey-holes for a later meal. So the behaviors you see with their toys are carryovers of their survival skills. 

Playtime is chaotic as the otters bounce from one toy to the next, but the trainers always restore order. The toy shelves are labeled so that there is a place for everything and everything goes back to its place. In fact, toys are inventoried against a checklist every night, just to make sure a hard-resin sea star or little boomer ball isn’t still tucked into an otter’s arm pouch—or cached in a filtration pipe. 

Karen Furnweger, web editor