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Sea otter pup found abandoned on the coast of Port Heiden finds home at Pittsburgh Zoo


(Pittsburgh) (April 2012)—The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, working with our partner, the Alaska SeaLife Center (ASLC), is providing a safe home for a newborn sea otter pup found stranded along an Alaskan coastline. Visitors can see the little pup in a special nursery in the lower level of Water’s Edge beginning Friday, April 27.

Residents of Port Heiden found the little pup lying next to other sea otters, all who had died from exposure. The sea otters were cut off from the ocean by a frozen bay and, in an attempt to get to the ocean, accidentally beached themselves off the coast of Port Heiden. “Residents along the Alaskan coastline have helped to rescue stranded sea otters before, but this was a first for the residents of Port Heiden,” says Brett Long, husbandry director at the Alaskan SeaLife Center. “We told the caregivers how to keep him alive until we could arrive.”

The most important concern was to ensure the pup was in a cool environment, its temperature remained steady, and it received fluids and electrolytes. The residents used a baby bottle filled with “Pedialyte”, a milk replacer, to feed the pup every couple of hours.

“The little otter is very lucky,” says Dr. Barbara Baker, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium. “Sea otter pups depend on three things to survive—food, body temperature, and their coat being in good condition. They must eat enough food to replenish 35% of their body weight.” Mothers also care for their pup’s coats until they are old enough to do it alone. When the pup became separated from his mother, it was only a matter of hours before he would become hypoglycemic from not eating. And, he was susceptible to exposure, because his fur was matted and did not provide protection from exposure.

Once the ASLC and the Pittsburgh Zoo staff agreed on transporting the little otter to Pittsburgh, they quickly utilized a relationship with FedEx, whose FedEx Ground operating company is headquartered in Pittsburgh, to organize transport from Anchorage to Pittsburgh though FedEx Express’s air network.

FedEx successfully transported the two sea otters currently at the Zoo in 2007. “We are so very grateful for the support of FedEx and their utmost attention to detail when transporting our precious cargo,” Says Dr. Baker. The otter was accompanied by the Zoo’s marine mammal staff and one of the veterinarians from the Alaska SeaLife Center.

“FedEx, in cooperation with zoos and animal preserves around the world, is recognized for its safe transport of rare and delicate cargo,” said Bruce Clemmons, manager of the FedEx Express Live Animal Desk. “We are proud to have put our years of experience and delivery resources to work ensuring a safe and secure arrival for this tough young pup.”

The next milestone for the little pup will be to acclimate to his new environment in Pittsburgh, begin eating solid food, respond to keeper’s cues which will teach him cooperative and husbandry behaviors. These behaviors will allow him to participate in his own care such as voluntary weigh-ins, and presentation of paws and flippers. He will develop his natural instincts as he grows and when he is bigger will be slowly introduced to Alki and Chugach, the Zoo’s current sea otter residents.



Sea Otter Facts:

  • Sea otters in Alaska are categorized as Southeast, south central, and southwest sea otters. The southwest sea otters are listed as threatened, and our little sea otter is from the southwest.
  • Sea otters are the largest members of the weasel family, with full-grown adults weighing up to 90 lbs., but are the smallest marine mammals.
  • Sea otters are highly intelligent and one of only a few species known to use tools to forage for food. In the wild, sea otters will carry shellfish to the surface, roll on to their backs, place the food on their stomachs, break open the shell with a rock, and then eat it.
  • Sea otters are a threatened species. Oil spills and polluted ocean waters are killing entire populations.
  • Oil and pollutants coat the sea otter’s rich brown fur. Sea otters need to groom their fur to keep warm and avoid exposure to cold. The toxic chemicals are ingested during grooming, making the otters sick.
  • Sea otters have 800,000 to one million hairs per square inch.
  • They have the thickest fur of any mammal.
  • They have two coats of hair, an undercoat, and longer guard hairs. This system traps a layer of air next to their skin.
  • Their skin never gets wet.
  • They eat the equivalent of more than one-fourth of their body weight in seafood every day.
  • Sea otters live along parts of the rocky coast of western North America and in a few coastal areas of the Soviet Union and Japan.
  • Sea otters are only found in the ocean and rarely are seen on land.
  • Sea otters have paddle-shaped hind limbs, not webbed.
  • They often rest in groups called “rafts.”
  • Adult females weigh 35-60 lbs. and males can reach up to 100 lbs.
  • Sea otter pups weigh 3-5 lbs. when they are born.
  • They like to sleep in kelp, which functions as an anchor for them.

The Alaska SeaLife Center is the only permanent marine rehabilitation center in Alaska, responding to wildlife such as sea otters and harbor seals. The Stranding program responds to sea otters with the authorization of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Once a sea otter is admitted to the Center, it is closely monitored by the veterinary and animal care staff at ASLC. Alaska SeaLife Center President and CEO Tara Riemer Jones explained, “We have no federal or state funding to care for sea otters, and we rely on donations to keep this program going. Individuals can make donations directly through the Center’s website. The Alaska SeaLife Center is a private non-profit research institution and visitor attraction which generates and shares scientific knowledge to promote understanding and stewardship of Alaska’s marine ecosystems. For more information regarding the otter, the Stranding program or the Alaska SeaLife Center, please reference the Alaska SeaLife Center website at www.alaskasealife.org.

Pittsburgh Zoo &PPG Aquarium Members receive free admission for an entire year.
The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium is open year round. For directions, hours, tickets and group sales information, call 412 665-3640. Visit the Zoo’s website at www.pittsburghzoo.org. The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Look for the AZA logo whenever you visit a zoo or aquarium as your assurance that you are supporting a facility dedicated to providing excellent care for animals, a great experience for you and a better future for all living things. For more information, visit www.aza.org.

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