Science & Technology



Surrogate otter mom at aquarium is rehabilitating pup 'better than any human ever can'

Lila Seidman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

Teaching an otter how to be an otter

The Aquarium of the Pacific’s foray into otter surrogacy is an outgrowth of the pioneering efforts of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which started rescuing otter pups in the mid-1980s, even before it officially opened its doors.

The surrogacy concept emerged early on, said Jessica Fujii, manager of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s sea otter program. In the wild, through their research program, staff “saw adoptions occurring naturally; it wasn’t common, but it had been seen,” she said. “So there was this thought that the strong maternal instincts that sea otters have could translate to the surrogacy in care.”

But an early attempt, in 1987, wasn’t successful. So for a time staffers tried to act as the pup’s mom, even swimming and diving alongside it in a big tidepool near the aquarium to teach it to forage.

While otters raised this way were able to hunt, they didn’t always socialize properly, said Brett Long, senior director of birds and mammals at Aquarium of the Pacific. Many were too comfortable with people.

“We are very good at keeping them alive and very good at keeping them healthy,” Long said. “What we’re not very good at is teaching them how to be an otter back out there.”


Then, in 2001, the Monterey Bay Aquarium paired an orphaned pup with Toola, a stranded female otter who’d had a stillborn. The pair bonded.

From there, the aquarium tried pairing orphans with otters that hadn’t been “primed” by a recent birth. More success.

They continued refining the methods, distancing humans from the caretaking process as much as possible. Caretakers wear disguises reminiscent of Darth Vader’s getup during feedings — so they’re not recognized as people. Panels are put around their pools to block the sight of humans, and the otters are monitored remotely. Releasable otters are also never placed in aquarium displays where throngs of visitors can “ooh” and “ahh” at them.

Researchers previously thought “experience and knowledge of the ocean was the most important part” of the rearing process, Fujii explained. “And what we since learned is that really that social aspect and that kind of identification as, ‘You’re an otter,’ was really key.”


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