In early August, a sea otter pup was reported stranded on Rialto Beach, on the outer coast of Washington state. A male, the pup was estimated to be about three weeks old and was in critical condition; very thin and weak.
Shortly after the stranded pup was discovered, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) contacted the Seattle Aquarium with a request to provide triage treatment to stabilize him. While the Aquarium is not a formal rehabilitation facility, we were selected due to our expertise with hand-raising sea otter pups, proximity to the pup’s location, and ongoing partnership with both USFWS and the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW).
A biologist with WDFW retrieved the pup and coordinated his transport to the Seattle Aquarium. Since then, he has been under quarantine and receiving ‘round the clock treatment from the Aquarium’s staff veterinarian, Dr. Lesanna Lahner, in tandem with Aquarium biologists and trained volunteers.
Sea otters are managed under many state and federal regulations. They’re protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and also listed under the state of Washington as threatened. Throughout their natural range in the wild, some populations of sea otters are also federally protected under the Endangered Species Act, although the WA state population is more stable and does not fall under this federal protection. This puts them in a unique position: responsibility for their management is co-shared by USFWS and WDFW.
As an accredited member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), the Aquarium is the Program Leader for sea otter management in zoos and aquariums throughout North America. Our Curator of Mammals & Birds, Traci Belting, serves as the AZA’s sea otter Species Survival Plan coordinator and studbook keeper, a position that was previously held by Aquarium Director of Life Sciences C.J. Casson.
The Seattle Aquarium has a long history with sea otters—we were the first in the world to have sea otters conceived, born and live to adulthood in a zoo or aquarium. Since opening in 1977, we’ve had nine successful pups born here. We also conduct important research on the species and host a biennial sea otter conservation workshop that attracts biologists, government agencies, veterinarians and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from around the world to discuss sea otter management and conservation
During the most recent workshop, the emerging issue of sea otter pups being found on beaches throughout their range was a primary topic of conversation. More strandings are being reported, because the wild population of sea otters is recovering, and the human population is growing along the coast where sea otters live.
An increase in stranded sea otter pups puts a strain on the AZA-accredited facilities that exhibit them. Unlike many other species, it’s very difficult to successfully release rehabilitated pups into the wild—the only option for most pups is to place them in an accredited zoo or aquarium. Why can’t they return to the wild? Sea otter pups are cared for by their mothers until they’re between six and 12 months old. “Survival in the wild is difficult in the best of circumstances, and hand-raised orphaned pups don’t have the critical skills necessary to survive in the wild,” says Traci.
Accepting a rescued pup is not a decision that can be made lightly. “There’s a tremendous responsibility and cost related to sea otters,” Traci says. “Their care, feeding, space requirements … it’s a lot to take on.” Plus, sea otters form social groups, with males competing for access to multiple females. The Seattle Aquarium, for example, already has a male sea otter: Adaa. Adding a second male would mean we would need a second, separate sea otter exhibit—and the willingness to either split our existing females between the two exhibits or add more.
For all of these reasons, there are times when accredited facilities in the U.S. have all the sea otters they can care for. “The inns are full!” Traci laughs.
To save as much space in AZA-accredited facilities as possible for orphaned and rehabilitated sea otter pups, an agreement was made two years ago not to breed animals under human care. “Not breeding our animals increases the potential space available so rescued pups can find homes,” says Traci. “From now on, the only new sea otters entering an AZA-accredited zoo or aquarium in the United States is a non-releasable sea otter, usually a pup, in cooperation and collaboration with state and federal agencies,” she adds.
So what does the future hold for this pup if he survives? He can’t remain at the Seattle Aquarium for the reasons described above. But through a stroke of luck, he can go abroad—to the Vancouver Aquarium in British Columbia, Canada.
Animals protected under the federal Endangered Species Act cannot be exported; they must remain in the United States. But animals like Washington’s sea otters, which are protected at the state level but not the federal level, can be transported to new homes in other countries. Assuming his rehabilitation at the Aquarium is successful, the orphaned pup (called Rialto by his caregivers—named for the beach on WA’s outer coast where he was found) will move to the Vancouver Aquarium as soon as he’s stable and the proper permits have been obtained. “This helps save space in U.S. zoos and aquariums for animals that must remain in the country,” Traci says.
Finding and facilitating a new home for an orphaned sea otter pup is uncharted territory for the Seattle Aquarium. “Until now, we’ve never cared for a sea otter not destined to become part of our collection,” says Traci. “We’re new to the process, and much collaboration is involved—with USFWS, WDFW and the Vancouver Aquarium, as well as the two licensed sea otter rehab facilities in the U.S.: the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Alaska SeaLife Center. It really does take a village,” she concludes.
As of this writing, an application for an export permit to move the pup had been submitted, a process that normally takes between six and 12 months, but which will hopefully be expedited so this pup can be transported to Vancouver Aquarium’s formal rehabilitation facility. Stay tuned for updates on the pup’s health and, we hope, transfer to his new home in Vancouver!
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As an accredited member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), the Aquarium is a program leader for sea otter management. You can support the Seattle Aquarium and our mission, Inspiring Conservation of Our Marine Environment by making a donation today!
Baby sea otter Rialto's heart-melting story of survival—The Seattle Times
6 adorable GIFs of Rialto the baby sea otter—The Seattle Times
Farewell, Rialto: Our favorite baby sea otter is leaving us, but for a new home—The Seattle Times