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Sea otter Yaku lies on the rocks of his habitat, fur still wet.

Shedd Aquarium is saddened to share that this week, animal care teams had to say goodbye to the oldest resident sea otter, 21-year-old Yaku.

Yaku was born at the Seattle Aquarium in 2000 to two rescued otters – one of which was rescued from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. He came to Shedd in 2001 and made unforgettable connections with our dedicated animal care staff and guests. His story highlights the untold impacts of animal rescue efforts. Shedd Aquarium partners with a network of accredited U.S. aquariums to rescue, rehabilitate and provide lifelong care to stranded and orphaned sea otters.

Recently, animal caretakers closest to Yaku noticed changes in his behavior and health. Our veterinary team recommended a CT scan, which revealed a large tumor in Yaku's chest. This tumor was unfortunately inoperable and untreatable.

Following this procedure, Yaku’s health continued to rapidly decline. His care team determined they could no longer guarantee his comfort and high quality of life, at which point they made the difficult decision to humanely euthanize him, surrounded by the people who cared for him each day for many years. Yaku is remembered for being easygoing and taking naps in the kelp of the Regenstein Sea Otter Habitat.

Sea otters are one of several species that benefitted from the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) that is celebrating its 50-year anniversary in 2022. Despite these important protections, which are currently keeping them from extinction, sea otters in the wild are still considered depleted under the MMPA and endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Otters are especially impacted by pollution, most notably oil and gas industrial spills and agricultural runoff that cause substantial damage to the ocean habitat they call home.

The protection of sea otters is critical because they are considered a keystone species. Sea otters maintain the health and balance of their kelp forest environments. They do this by eating sea urchins, which feast on the kelp. Without sea otters to control urchin populations, sea kelp would be decimated and several other species that rely on the kelp for food or shelter would be jeopardized.

Our Animal Response Team remains committed to supporting rescue and rehabilitation efforts that help all kinds of aquatic species from sea otters on the coast of California to tortoise triage in Madagascar and beyond. Shedd Aquarium is also working with our NGO partners, federal agencies and Congress to build on the protection MMPA has provided.

This year we are redoubling our efforts to prevent future biodiversity loss and lessen the impacts of climate change. This involves supporting innovative policy solutions to protect aquatic habitat, funding nature-based solutions that build climate resiliency, and holding corporations accountable for the impacts of toxics pollution. This is all part of our mission to create resilient habitats in our own backyard and across the globe.

Yaku lived an exceptional life at Shedd and inspired so many guests to better understand and take action to protect this planet that we all share. He will be dearly missed by all.