Georgia Aquarium Announces
Three Rescued Sea Otter Pups
Three rescued southern sea otter pups have found a new home at the world’s most magical aquarium, in Atlanta. Bixby, Cruz and Brighton – named after geographical locations along the central California coast, the natural habitat of the southern sea otter – are being housed in parts of the newly renovated Georgia-Pacific Cold Water Quest gallery at Georgia Aquarium. The new sea otter exhibit space opened in May, after a remodel to vastly enlarge the support areas, to create more housing options and long-term care of the Aquarium’s current otters, Gracie and Oz, and to provide space for any potential rescued animals in the future.
Southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis) are currently listed on the IUCN Red List as “endangered,” the U.S. Endangered Species Act as “threatened,” and under the Marine Mammal Protection Act as “depleted.” According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the most recent sea otter census showed a continued downward trend in the number of both adults and pups in California. A number of recent sea otter pup strandings have been associated with shark attacks; in fact, both Bixby and Cruz were orphaned after their mothers were fatally attacked by white sharks.
A Partnership to Save the Pups:
The Sea Otter Research and Conservation (SORAC) program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) rescues and manages the care of dozens of stranded southern sea otters each year, and 2010 has been a busy year for stranded pups where several rescue calls came in.
Sea otter pups learn all skills necessary for survival from their mothers at a very early age. In the case of stranded pups, attempts by humans to hand-rear and release them back into the wild has historically been unsuccessful. These days, dependent pups are typically placed with adult female sea otters who act as surrogate mothers, giving them the best chance at survival once released back into the wild. Animals unable to be placed with a surrogate must be hand-reared and relocated to another aquarium facility, like Georgia Aquarium, for long-term care. Sadly, if no space exists, pups will be euthanized because they will not have skills essential for survival.
The first of the rescued otters, Brighton, was found as a 12-week-old pup along the California coast back in June. SORAC staff members believe she was either orphaned or prematurely weaned from her mother in the wild. Veterinary staff also suspected acanthocephalan peritonitis, a condition caused by eating sand crabs infested with parasitic worms. In young or weakened animals, the worms can migrate through the intestinal wall and cause an often-fatal infection. As the treatment of this infection is lengthy and intensive and release of treated animals is often unsuccessful, the pup was deemed non-releasable by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). After her rescue, the SORAC team examined and treated Brighton, who was nurtured to a full recovery and socialized with other sea otters before being transported to Georgia Aquarium for permanent residence in November. Brighton is now 8 months old and weighs 30 pounds (13.8 kg).
In mid-August, Georgia Aquarium’s zoological team responded to a request from the SORAC team to support the care and rehabilitation of two additional sea otters pups – Cruz, a two-week-old male pup, and Bixby, a four-week-old female pup. Although the otter pups were found stranded in different locations on different days along the central coastline of California, it was determined that both of the pups’ mothers had suffered fatal shark attacks – likely from white sharks, according to biologists. Fortunately, the pups only suffered superficial wounds and both remained in fairly good condition.
At the time of their stranding, SORAC had no surrogate females available to adopt the pups, so they too were deemed non-releasable by USFWS. Georgia Aquarium immediately sent staff to MBA, and they remained with Cruz and Bixby until the animals were transported to Atlanta in September. Young sea otter pups require 24-hour care, which can be labor-intensive and challenging to manage. With the pups unable to care for themselves, biologists stepped in, playing the role as “mom,” training the animals to nurse from a bottle and grooming their thick fur to keep them in top condition. After veterinarians and biologists deemed each of the pups’ health status acceptable for travel, the animals were transported to Atlanta on a private aircraft.
Georgia Aquarium Welcomes New Pups:
Prior to the animals’ arrival, specialized nurseries were set up in the Georgia Aquarium’s animal care suites, located in the Correll Center for Aquatic Animal Health. The nurseries allowed biologists to care for the pups and tend to their needs, but also allowed staff to keep the animals isolated from the current sea otter residents until the pups were medically cleared from quarantine and ready to be housed with the Aquarium’s adult animals.
Aquarium staff carefully introduced the new pups to Gracie and Oz, the Aquarium’s current adult sea otter residents, allowing them to become acclimated to one another before giving them access to the exhibit. All of the animals will be housed in the Georgia-Pacific Cold Water Quest sea otter exhibit area, both on display and in the newly renovated back-of-house support areas. Animal care staff will continue to acclimate the animals to each other and to the various parts of the exhibit area while they adjust to their new home.