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

Over two decades, 70 pups have passed through the Monterey aquarium’s surrogacy program. Ten mature female otters did their part as adoptive moms. A study found the rewilded otters contributed to population growth in an estuary called Elkhorn Slough. In 2002, when the aquarium began its releases, there were only about 20 otters in the estuary. By 2016, there were more than 100.

In late February 2020, the Long Beach aquarium announced it was joining the surrogacy program as a partner and welcoming Millie, who is now 7. The pandemic around the corner delayed the program’s rollout, and it wasn’t until September 2023 that the permit was approved. But they still had to wait for a stranded otter to put Millie’s surrogacy skills to the test.

A long road home

After a three-week stabilization period, 968 was driven from Monterey to Long Beach. During the roughly six-hour drive, she had ice to munch on and cool air piped in.

When 968 met Millie in February, it wasn’t familial love at first sight — at least on the pup’s end.

She stranded later than most pups, meaning she may have had some memory of her biological mom, experts said.

“And so the first time it met Millie, it was like, ‘You’re not my mom.’ And Millie, fortunately, was just patient and was, like, ‘Hey, I’m in the pool. I’m hanging out,’” Long said.

A very chill stepmom tactic.

But by the sixth day, things were less chill. If a bond doesn’t form in seven days, then it likely never will, Long said.

Aquarium personnel would get excited every time the pup swam closer to Millie. When the two otters finally united, after nearly seven days, cheers erupted from the office where they watched the events unfold on a livestream.

“I don’t know that that’s going to fade,” Long said of the collective enthusiasm. “There’s some invested people on this project, [and] this has become a very popular corner of our administration.”

Now Millie and the pup are inseparable. In late March, 968 rested on Millie’s belly the best she could — the pup had grown to around 18 pounds, from about 11 when she arrived in Long Beach.


After a relaxing nap in the sun, they made their way to the other side of the pool. The pup, now about 4½ months old, played with a piece of a crab shell as Millie relaxed on a platform. Soon the hyper baby scampered up next to mom in what appeared to be the otter version of “Ma, look at me!” According to Long, the pup was in a stage akin to the terrible twos.

Millie, in a sense, is giving back to the program. She was raised through surrogacy herself and for a while did just fine in the wild — until people started feeding her, which is illegal, experts said.

When she was about 2½ years old, she started jumping on kayaks, and federal wildlife officials ordered her out of the water. When Millie was fished out, it turned out she was pregnant. (Millie’s story is reminiscent of the surfboard-stealing otter that became a national sensation over the summer. That otter, dubbed 841, gave birth in the wild shortly after her antics grabbed headlines.)

Millie raised her pup using the surrogacy program protocols, and it was eventually released. It appears her maternal instinct hasn’t faded.

The test

The release of 968 will depend on whether she can reach certain developmental milestones. She has to show she can care for her luxurious fur; crack open clams, mussels and other food; socialize reasonably well with other otters and avoid humans.

She’ll separate from Millie when she’s about 6 months old — the age pups typically leave “home” — and head back to the Monterey aquarium where she’ll hang out with otters closer to her own age. There, she’ll also get the opportunity to hunt live prey.

If all goes well and she passes a final health exam, she’ll return to her native waters. She’ll be implanted with a tracker and rigorously monitored for two weeks. After that period, her survival chances are as good as any otter.

Unfortunately, you can’t wave to 968.

Because the surrogacy program hinges on keeping humans away, visitors at the Long Beach and Monterey aquariums won’t be able to see the otters. The rearing pools at the Aquarium of the Pacific are tucked behind a medical center and a marine mammal protection law prohibits livestreaming their activities to the public.

However, the Long Beach aquarium has launched an exhibit explaining the program. And, yes, it does include adorable video of baby otters.

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