For animals in most zoos and
aquariums, the door from freedom
to captivity only swings one way.
But at the Monterey Bay Aquarium,
sea otters from its exhibits teach
wild sea otter orphans how to
survive in the ocean. Ann Dornfeld
has the story:
For animals in most zoos and aquariums, the door from
freedom to captivity only swings one way. But at the
Monterey Bay Aquarium, sea otters from its exhibits teach
wild sea otter orphans how to survive in the ocean. Ann
Dornfeld has the story:
Rosa has her baby in a headlock. That’s actually how
southern sea otters hold their young.
“The pup is essentially unconscious – it’s very much
asleep, and Rosa is holding it as a female would in the
wild: she’s got it sort of teed off to her side with a paw
around its neck.”
Andy Johnson is the director of the Monterey Bay
Aquarium’s Sea Otter Research and Conservation
By the end of the19th century, sea otters had been hunted
to extinction in some parts of the Pacific.
Lilian Carswell is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
She says these days, pollution and disease are sea otters’
biggest threats. And she says a lot of other species
depend on otters’ survival.
“Sea otters are important for a number of reasons. One is
that they’re a top predator in the nearshore marine
ecosystem and they play an important role in structuring
what that ecosystem looks like.”
Hungry sea otters keep sea urchin populations in check.
When urchins overpopulate an area, they can mow down
entire kelp forests that provide food and shelter for
hundreds of species.
So to help conserve the otter population, Andy Johnson
and his team at the Monterey Bay Aquarium pair orphaned
pups from the wild with the female exhibit otters. The goal
is for the surrogate mother to not only care for the pup, but
also to teach it all the skills it will need to be released back
into the wild at about six months old.
A volunteer has just tossed some food into the pool where
Rosa and the orphaned pup are swimming. Rosa grabs
the live crab as the pup watches.
“Rosa’s quite skilled with those, so she’ll pretty much take
that apart in a few minutes. We’ll have to watch the pup
and see if the pup approaches the crab without getting
pinched. I have to admit it’s quite amusing to see these
young animals confronting these crabs ’cause these crabs
are pretty formidable on their own.”
Rosa ends up breaking off a leg for her adopted pup, who
decides the shell is too much work. Before long, though,
the pup will learn some of the same impressive skills that
adult sea otters have – like how to use tools to open clams
and sea urchins.
Before the surrogate program began, workers and
volunteers used to hand-rear these pups. They’d even
take the pups swimming in Monterey Bay to acclimate
them to their future home.
But that made the released otters expect food from
boaters and other people they encountered in the bay.
Now that surrogate moms raise the otters, the goal is for
the pups to never see or hear a human. We’ve been
watching the sea otters interact from a TV monitor near
the pool. To get up close to the pup, I have to put on a
Darth Vader costume of sorts – starting with a huge black
(sound of the poncho)
Ann: “This is a welding mask?”
Andy Johnson: “A very cheap welding mask.”
Rosa isn’t fooled. As I approach the pool, she shoots over
to see whether I have food.
(sound of the otter sniffing around)
Rosa was a rescued pup. She was hand-reared before the
surrogate program began. After she was released into
Monterey Bay, she had to be recaptured because she was
jumping on kayaks and divers.
“We found that with the sea otters, putting them with an
adult female in a fairly shallow pool for six months far
outweighs whatever we were doing trying to raise these
Sea otter populations are recovering at a slow pace in
California. But this program is contributing to the
Johnson says the apparent survival rate of the re-released
pups is now about as good as that of newly-weaned pups
in the wild. Some have even successfully raised their own
pups, using skills they picked up from an exhibit otter at
For The Environment Report, I’m Ann Dornfeld.