Rescued sea otter pup Ellie, who found a permanent home at Shedd Aquarium in January, is one of the gang now. She can hold her own cavorting with the four older otters in front of and behind the scenes in the Abbott Oceanarium’s Regenstein Sea Otter Habitat. She’s still the smallest and darkest sea otter, but that’s changing rapidly.
Since we last posted a “pupdate” on Ellie, she has gained more than 10 pounds, bringing her weight to 31 pounds. (By comparison, 2-year-old Luna weighs 40 pounds, and the largest adult female, Mari, weighs 55 pounds.) Ellie no longer needs her food sliced and diced, and in the last month she graduated to eating whole crabs the size of your hand, which she takes apart slowly. She seems to like crab, clam, capelin, pollock, squid and shrimp equally.
Training goes hand-in-paw with feeding times, and she is learning to recognize her shape, a red circle. When a trainer holds the shape at the edge of the water, Ellie swims to it, or stations, in preparation for a short session of fast-paced interactions, the only way to train a species with a notoriously tenuous attention span. Among the behaviors she is learning now are going into a kennel, a skill that will allow veterinarians to examine her closely in a protected setting, and swimming from one trainer to another on cue, known as A to B.
After all that activity, it’s nap time. The sea otters often take mid-morning and afternoon naps in addition to sleeping for longer periods at night.
“Before a nap, Ellie and the others groom themselves until they’re nice and fluffy and dry,” says Lana Vanagasem, manager of penguins, sea otters and dogs. The superflexible otters might fold their rear feet onto their tummies to conserve heat as they float in the water. They also like to wrap themselves in long, kelplike car wash strips, either in or out of the water.
Lana reveals that both Ellie and Luna suck their paws as they go to sleep.
After a rest, Ellie is charged up to play. Lana says that the older otters—females Mari, 13, and Kiana, 11, and male Yaku, 17—are more interested in grooming, napping, playing on their own with favorite toys and interacting with the trainers than they are in rough-and-tumble pup play.
Ellie can self-amuse for a while by popping in and out of the hole of a large plastic donut, her current favorite toy. But she found the perfect playmate with Luna. Christy Sterling, supervisor of penguins and otters, says, “Luna has the energy of a pup. She and Ellie are like two peas in a pod. It’s like watching two young siblings. They play, they wrestle, and they’re very rambunctious.”
Fun as they are to watch, it’s also heartening that these two are thriving. They come from the threatened southern sea otter population found only along a stretch of central California coastline, and both pups had become separated from their mothers. They would have died had their high-pitched cries not been heard by passersby, who called wildlife rescuers.
Ellie was a feisty 4-week-old pup who might have been separated from her mother during a storm. (That’s Ellie on the left above, and below sneaking up on Luna’s clam-paste-frosted toy for Sea Otter Awareness Week.) Luna was a 2-pound newborn whose mother had left her at least 16 hours before she was rescued and, for any number of reasons, never returned. She was one of the smallest otter pups rescuers had worked with and required several weeks of intensive care in California.
Despite their differences in age and development, both pups received long-term 24-hour care at Shedd—the same as they would have gotten from their moms, plus close veterinary attention to ensure there were no ill effects from the stranding ordeal.
Shedd trainers have helped both master the everyday skills their mothers would have taught them. But the trusting relationships the otters formed with humans during the care that saved their lives means that they cannot be released back into the wild. Instead, Ellie and Luna are compelling, and endearing, ambassadors for their threatened species, raising awareness about sea otters 52 weeks a year.
—Karen Furnweger, web editor