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The Aquarium of the Pacific’s newest sea otter is going to be a mom for orphaned pups

Millie
Photograph: Courtesy Robin Riggs Millie

Between their tummy-fluffing back floats and their persistent surprised facial expressions, sea otters’ adorableness leaves us defenseless. And throw the mention of baby sea otters into the mix? We’re practically crying over the cuteness.

So we were excited to learn that not only has the Aquarium of the Pacific taken in a new sea otter, but that she’ll serve as a surrogate mother for orphaned sea otter pups as part of a new program at the Long Beach institution.

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Meet Millie, a four-year-old sea otter from California’s Central Coast who just made her public debut at the aquarium on Thursday. We swung by and Brett Long, curator of mammals and birds, filled us in on Millie’s story:

“Millie stranded when she was a seven-week-old pup—mom was just gone—in Santa Cruz and was picked up by Monterey Bay Aquarium. She was taken into the aquarium and put into their sea otter surrogacy program. And so for the first couple weeks, she was maintained by her caregivers, and they were disguised to try to minimize human influence. Then she was put with another adult female that over the next six to eight months in essence raised her.

“When she was close to a year old, she was successfully released back into the wild and stayed out there for almost a year. But when she became reproductively active, she started negatively interacting with kayakers and fishermen along Cannery Row in Monterey, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife was concerned that there was going to be a bad human interaction, so she was considered non-releasable at that point and brought back in.

“When she came back in they found out she was pregnant, and she then became part of a research program at UC Santa Cruz looking at maternal investment—literally the calories needed to raise a sea otter pup—and she was with them for about eight or nine months. After that pup was weaned and put through Monterey Bay Aquarium’s program to be released, then she was placed with us.”

Since 1998, the Aquarium of the Pacific has been working with the Monterey Bay Aquarium to permanently house relatively older otters that’ve been deemed non-releasable. But now, the Long Beach aquarium will also be taking in pups with the intention of reintroducing them into the wild. Otters that are about eight weeks old—once they’ve been weaned off of formula and onto solid food—will arrive at the aquarium and be paired with a surrogate otter mother for six to eight months. And that’s where Millie’s story actually makes her a perfect candidate for the process: She’s already raised a pup on her own, and the aquarium has learned that otters who’ve grown up through the surrogate program are more likely to perform more successfully as a surrogate themselves.

 

Millie
Photograph: Michael Juliano

 

 

So what does that mean for you, the average aquarium visitor who just wants to see some adorably fluffy baby otters? Well, a little bit of bad news (but good news for the otters): You won’t be able to gawk at the pups, at least not directly. “When you’re rehabilitating an otter for release to the wild, it’s a little different in that you’re trying to separate them from the human form,” says Sandy Trautwein, vice president of animal husbandry. In order to keep the otters from become too comfortable around humans, handlers dress up in capes and welding masks. “It’s a very different protocol than if you’re working one-on-one like we do here with our otters on exhibit. We need a separate facility that’s away from the exhibit otters and then a very specific protocol for disguising the staff members, so they don’t look like humans. The facility itself will be behind the scenes, but we do plan to have a public interactive exhibit, where the public can look at what’s happening behind the scenes [via a video feed] and learn more about sea otters in the wild.”

The behind-the-scenes area will be built at the aquarium’s Molina Animal Care Center, near the shark lagoon, and is expected to be able to accommodate three to four rescued sea otter pups per year. Until then, look out for Millie splashing in the aquarium’s usual second-floor sea otter display (or consider an encounter with one of the other otters to witness an up-close feeding). 

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