Orphaned otter gets round-the-clock attention

Posted: Thursday, July 19, 2001

An orphaned sea otter pup found abandoned near Hoonah is doing well in a new nursery in Seward.

"He is very tiny, pretty fragile, but eating vigorously and is stable for the moment," said Christine DeCourtney of the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward. "For this tiny little bundle, you wouldn't believe the amount of care. We have a 24-hour nursery set up, staffed for around-the-clock caring for him."

The male otter nicknamed Elfin spent about three hours in Juneau on Sunday between flights. The pup, whose plaintive cries resemble those of a human infant, attracted attention at the Juneau Airport, where Alaska Airlines staff gathered around to snap photos. He arrived in Seward on Monday.

The pup was orphaned in Gull Cove, about 27 miles northwest of Hoonah, not far from Elfin Cove, said Elizabeth Wolfe, a veterinarian with the Southeast Alaska Veterinary Clinic who cared for the pup when it was flown to Juneau.

"It was picked up by fishermen in Gull Cove. Apparently a pod of orcas was trying to get fish out of their nets and bumping their boats and being aggressive. The fishermen were trying to pull in their nets quickly and get away and saw a baby otter all by itself," Wolfe said.

 

The fishermen were unable to locate the baby's mother after watching for several hours, so they retrieved the pup, DeCourtney said.

The fishermen took the otter to a lodge, which called the Seattle Zoo, which called the SeaLife Center, said DeCourtney, external affairs director at the center.

Pam Tuomi, a veterinarian with the center, asked Wolfe to be her temporary otter sitter. Following a recipe given to her by Tuomi, Wolfe whipped up a batch of baby sea otter formula, a blend of light cream, cod liver oil, clams, Pedialite (a bottled water for dehydrated infants) and squid.

"It really liked that bottle," said Wolfe, who estimated the otter was two to six days old and weighed 3 pounds.

Because he is so small, Elfin is considered high risk.

Young sea otters require constant attention. Elfin must be fed, bathed and groomed every two hours. Regulating his temperature is difficult, as his fur needs to be kept clean with frequent dips in a salt water bath to rinse off formula. Elfin must then be dried to avoid chilling; drying can take an hour or more. To avoid overheating, he sleeps on a bed of water-filled bags, which simulates wave motion. Once Elfin reaches six weeks old, he will begin to groom himself and can be weaned, DeCourtney said.

 

SeaLife Center rehabilitation coordinator/veterinarian Natalie Noll said Elfin will not be returned to the sea if he survives.

"It is not possible with young sea otters. The constant care and handling they require imprints a strong association with people," she said.

Because the center does not have a sea otter habitat, staff are assisting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in finding a permanent home for Elfin. Only eight facilities in the world have lodging suitable for northern sea otters, said Lee Kellar, husbandry director at the center. "We hope to find him a home where he will fit into a captive breeding management program and can be properly socialized."

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.com.



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