The female otter pup whined.
It was fall of 2008 and I was in the holding area at Aquarium of the Pacific, and it was clear that on this, her first night in captivity, the otter wanted attention from humans.
She'd been found along the Central Coast, too young to survive on her own but too old to be placed into the program that matches younger female pups with otter moms who can teach survival skills. This orphan was lucky to have found a home in Long Beach.
As I put on waders and got into the tank, her whine turned into a softer whimper. Over the next eight hours, the shy creature and I would bond a little, and she'd grow comfortable enough with me that she would resume whining whenever I would try to take a short break out of the water. The vocals of a whining baby otter are among the most ear-piercing sounds in nature, and I could not stay away for long while she was uttering her cries.
This was my first meeting with the creature that would be named Gidget by the staff, and who I would come to know as "Furball."
There was a reason for our meeting. As an orphaned pup, she needed around-the-clock attention, including feedings that would happen day and night. This put a strain on the paid staff and, because of that, I was recruited as a volunteer to become a surrogate otter dad.
Thus began what I call, in my Aquarium of the Pacific blog, "Adventures in Otter Space."
What did we do together?
Otters don't have a layer of blubber, and they have to keep their fur clean so it can trap the air that forms a natural insulation against cold water. Typically, otters learn about grooming from their mothers. So, as a surrogate parent, one of my duties was to formally groom her as needed. This involved lifting her out of the water to an island, where I would dry her off with a towel and then comb her fur out until was nice and neat. At the end of this, she would be drier and puffy and, sometimes, sound asleep.
I have to admit that grooming a baby otter is a pretty neat experience.
Another activity involved food.
Feeding an otter turned out to be easier than I expected. Instead of an impatient little critter whining and fidgeting like the sea lion pups I once helped raise in San Pedro (during my days in marine mammal rescue), she would float nearby, patiently, as I put small portions of clam and shrimp on her chest. Occasionally, after finishing one portion, she'd extend her paws for the next piece. She reminded me of a football player waiting to catch a punt.
During Furball's first fall season at the Aquarium of the Pacific, we'd spend as many as four nights a week together, plus my regular volunteer shift on Saturdays. This meant that sometimes, after my regular work in Cypress, I'd go home to Fullerton for a few hours sleep and then drive to the aquarium for an overnight stint of otter sitting. There were times I'd have a vending machine dinner (chips; days-old sandwiches) while watching Furball enjoy gourmet-quality shrimp and clams.
Over time, I watched the shy, clingy pup grow into an innovative, even bold otter.
At the start of every shift we'd survey the tank because Furball/Gidget had a habit of unscrewing the bolts that held down the drain cover. A couple of times she managed to take one completely off. I found this amazing; she could do with her claws what I'd need to do with a wrench. But I shouldn't have been surprised. I learned that taking things apart is what sea otters do – they're continually checking out every nook and cranny of their world to find food or things that interest them, even if it means a bit of deconstruction.
I also watched as she interacted with other humans. She was comfortable with all the people who would take care of her, but she'd grow nervous when new people came into the holding area. This told me she could tell people apart.
I also discovered she had great eyesight.
Furball was always intrigued when the Goodyear blimp flew over her outdoor area, watching intently as it crossed the sky. Then, one day, a different blimp was overhead, and when she saw it, she let out a "whoa!" (her cry sounded like the robot in "WALL-E"). When I looked up, I saw this particular airship had a cartoon dog on its nose. Turned out that Furball was spooked by a Snoopy logo on the blimp.
Eventually, Furball had to be weaned from resting on our legs in the water and from having us groom her. She was growing bigger and she had to learn to do more on her own. However, this didn't stop her from wanting to lie next to me to groom herself whenever I sat on the island in her holding tank. My proximity seemed to give her a sense of security.
Finally, the day came when Furball was introduced to the Aquarium's sea otter exhibit.
I watched like a proud parent as she dived in and started swimming amid the seaweed and fish that decorated her new home. At one point, as I stood where exhibit guests usually stand, she swam over and looked at me through the glass, a moment of happy recognition that comes only when you and an animal have had a good relationship.
At that moment, I knew that all the nights I sacrificed while caring for this orphan sea otter pup were worth it.
I've written a bi-weekly blog for the Aquarium of the Pacific's website since 2007 and many of my posts have been about my interactions with Gidget/Furball, with titles such as "Adventures in Otter Space," "Otter Life Lessons" and "Why I Love The Furball."
I was fortunate to be allowed to continue working with the otters even after Gidget/Furball moved to the main exhibit. I was the first volunteer to be allowed to work directly with adult versions of these cute but unpredictable animals.
This winter, Furball's story comes full circle.
Because she was stranded at 10 weeks old, in Morro Bay, she was too old to take part in the surrogate otter program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Sea Otter Research and Conservation program. Ironically, the orphaned pup now is being groomed to become one of SORAC's foster moms.
Her good-natured personality makes her a prime candidate to help raise orphan sea otter pups with the goal of returning them to the wild.
I can't think of a finer epilogue to my Adventures in Otter Space than this.
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