The young otter was crying and desperately trying to climb on adult females, seeking her missing mother. Already occupied with their own pups, the adult otters repeatedly pushed the interloper away. With things looking increasingly desperate, staff decided to rescue the pup and bring her back to the Aquarium.
On February 18, otter number 479—now officially known as “Kit,” after a fictional character in John Steinbecks’ The Wayward Bus—became the youngest otter ever to go on exhibit at the Aquarium.
Visitors can watch 11-week-old Kit and her 9-year-old companion, Mae, as they eat, sleep and play at the Aquarium's sea otter exhibit, or via our live web cam.
The Aquarium’s sea otter program has worked for more than 25 years to understand and conserve the threatened southern sea otter. Normally, stranded pups are reared behind the scenes at the Aquarium by exhibit otters serving as surrogate mothers, with little human interaction. After release, the hope is that these pups will assimilate into the wild population, survive to maturity and produce offspring of their own.
But SORAC can only accommodate a few otters behind the scenes. At the time Kit arrived, all the rooms at the inn were full. That’s when SORAC and Aquarium exhibit staff began to contemplate something we’d never done before: placing an otter pup on exhibit, in public view. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has authorized the Aquarium to manage Kit in the sea otter exhibit, and she will not be released to the wild.
By providing space for one more pup, we’re able to save a young sea otter’s life. But the arrangement also carries another benefit. For thousands of visitors, the whole thing is likely to be very fun to watch.
A sea otter pup may be small, but it requires a lot of work. With Kit destined for the exhibit in a few short weeks, SORAC and exhibit staff started making preparations. First, the exhibit itself had to be modified to allow the pup to go freely into the back of exhibit, out of public view, even at night. This would provide some privacy, and also allow divers to clean the front of the exhibit without disturbing the two otters. Staff schedules were modified to ensure that the most experienced aquarists would be on duty, at least for the first few weeks.
All the usual sea otter activities—called behavioral enrichments—had to be redesigned. Aquarium staff had to ensure that objects placed in the exhibit were safe for small mouths and tiny paws. Feedings schedules were also changed, to match the relentless caloric needs of a growing pup.
The new arrangement is likely to be a learning process for everyone, from Aquarium staff to the otters themselves.
Husbandry staff anticipate that Kit will stay close to the adult females on exhibit and possibly mimic their behavior. This is important, because one day, Kit may be asked to impart that knowledge to a pup of her own. Our three current surrogate otters—while healthy—are growing older.
Should Kit become a surrogate herself, it could result in more stranded pups being reared at the Aquarium and released to the wild, contributing to a critically dwindling wild population and becoming part of SORAC’s long-term study of surrogate-reared pups.
If so, it will be yet another step in helping solve the mystery of the threatened southern sea otter.