MARINE MAMMAL RESCUE STORIES
EPISODE 1: JOEY, THE RESCUED ORPHANED SEA OTTER PUP
Transcript taken from published audio file
MARCUS: Hey everyone, and welcome to the very first episode of Marine Mammal Rescue Stories. My name’s Marcus and I am going to be your host on this podcast series about the rescue and rehabilitation of marine mammals. We are going to talk about what’s so special, so unique about marine mammals as well as other groups of animals. We’re going to talk about their time here in rehab and how we got them back to health, and we’re going to talk about, in some cases, what we know happened to them after we released them back into the wild.
So my very first guest on this program is Sion Cahoon. She is a veterinary technologist, or veterinary technician, depending on where in the world you are, and she is one of the people who cared for Joey, a rescued orphaned sea otter pup when he was at the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, and she still cares for him at the Vancouver Aquarium where she also works.
I had a chance to ask her all those otter questions that people have been asking on our YouTube channel.
Hey, Sion, how are you doing?
SC: Hey, Marcus, I’m good. Hey, everybody on YouTube. Happy Saturday.
M: It’s a beautiful Saturday here in beautiful British Columbia, and we are now ready to take your questions in the chat. But Sion, maybe you can just start by letting us know a little bit about what a veterinary technologist actually does.
SC: Sure. I, along with my team, we are basically responsible for the healthcare of all the animals obviously at the aquarium as well as helping out at the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre whenever is necessary. We work with a wide variety of sea creatures, anything from a tiny fish or a frog all the way up to a giant sea lion and a walrus, and everything in between. It’s kind of like a nurse for animals, but we do a lot of the diagnostics, we do x-rays, anaesthesia, bloodwork, all of that kind of stuff. So it’s all-encompassing, pretty much.
M: Wow, that’s a lot to do as a vet tech. Most people probably think that veterinarians do that, but a lot of that actually falls into what you do, right?
SC: Yes, that’s totally right, Marcus. Obviously we work under the direct supervision – or sometimes indirect supervision – of veterinarians, but basically the only thing we cannot do is diagnose, prescribe or do surgery. So kind of everything in between is mostly up to us to do, under the direction of a vet.
M: Wow, that’s impressive. Vet techs, that’s what I always say at least, are sort of the superheroes, they are the people that do the work in between all the very technical work that requires all the extra education that those veterinarians go through. But it is very impressive and thanks for joining us here this morning, Sion, to answer all those questions, and there’s already hundreds of them streaming in through YouTube, we’ll try and get to some of them. They may be a bit random, because it’s going to be really hard to sort them, but we’re going to get to as many of them as we can.
There’s one comparing to being in the wild. How is Joey regarding size, weight and his behaviour? That’s an interesting question. Is there any difference between wild and captive?
SC: That’s a really good question. I’m not sure if there are a lot of studies done regarding growth metrics or weight and measurements in wild sea otter pups, but in our experience and with the ones that we’ve raised, he’s right on track basically. You can see in the video; he’s in really good body condition, he’s got a good appetite, he’s gaining weight rapidly. (Laughs.) His weight’s gone up quite a bit since he was admitted. He’s hitting all of the milestones and doing all of the things that we want to see in a hand-raised sea otter pup. So he’s eating well, he’s starting to groom, he’s taking his solids, he’s interactive with his enrichment. He’s swimming, he’s diving. He’s doing all of the things that a baby sea otter pup should do, so we’re really happy with where he’s at.
M: Yes, well, you mentioned the weight gain. We have a weight ticker up on our YouTube chat and that’s certainly going up every single day and people are always amazed, like ‘Oh my god, how could he possibly gain this much weight in one day?’ But yes, rapid weight gain, no kidding, right?
SC: (Laughs.) Exactly. Sea otters will take between 20-30% of their body weight in food per day, so he’s doing exactly what we want him to be doing with his weight gain.
M: Another question regarding diet, this is a question we get quite often. Does Joey drink water from his tub or do you guys give him other water, so fresh water in other words?
SC: Marine mammals don’t really drink water. They take in the majority of their hydration from the food that they eat. So we’re feeding Joey a formula that is a commercial puppy milk replacer mixed with a lot of water and some clams and some vitamins, so that’s where he gets the majority of his hydration from. If you’ve ever seen an otter at the aquarium or on YouTube or in person, a marine mammal eats its fish in the water, eats food in the water, they actually spit out most of the seawater they take in. So seawater for them is not hydration, it mainly comes from their food intake.
M: I think you mentioned they have the kidneys to take care of any excess salt that still ends up within them, right?
SC: Yes, they have extraordinary kidneys they can actually filter out the excess seawater. It actually wouldn’t be good for a normal person, a normal animal, to drink that, it makes most animal vomit. But marine mammals have a special way of filtering it out.
M: So smart.
SC: We also give them ice treats. You’ll see Joey gets a lot of ice, and our otters in the aquarium love ice, they get tonnes of ice, and so they get a little bit of extra hydration from that as well.
M: This is an unusual question. Does he donate to blood banks? Somebody says they’re new to veterinary medicine. Does he or do any of the otters at the aquarium give blood to some sort of blood bank?
SC: As far as I know, there is not a blood bank for sea otters. I could be wrong, somebody correct me if I am wrong. We actually have had to do a blood transfusion on a sea otter before. It was a rescued otter and the donor was one of our male otters that lived with us at the aquarium, so we did a quick kind of pre-match to make sure there were no major interactions between the two blood types. There’s also not really blood-typing that is good for otters that I know of. So yes, we have actually done a blood transfusion before. We don’t have blood banks, I’m not sure if there is a blood bank, but we’ve got a good little collection of otters that we can draw blood from if we need to.
M: Quite astonishing to me just the fact that you’ve done a blood transfusion on a sea otter before.
SC: We have, yes.
M: We could probably do an extra episode just to list all the various exotic species that you’ve done interesting procedures on. (Laughs.)
SC: Yes, we could talk for days about that. (Laughs.)
M: This is another question, this is a cool one. What’s Joey’s personality in a nutshell? They all pretty much look the same, all those baby otters, but does he have some sort of special traits that are unique to him?
SC: Well, he’s going through phases like most babies do. So he’s in kind of a bitey phase right now. He’s probably teething. He’s – oh my god, whoever’s watching on YouTube right now, I have no idea what he’s doing. (Laughs) He’s wiggly, that’s for sure. So yes, he’s going through a bit of a bitey phase right now, we’re starting to introduce more and more solid foods to satisfy the chomping instinct that he has. He’s a pretty demanding otter, so as soon as he wakes up and has to go to the bathroom you’ll hear about it. For all of you asking why there’s no sound on YouTube, that is why. A sea otter pup’s cry is piercing, and it’s not nice on the ears, so when he’s hungry, when he’s got to go, when he wants a toy, when he wants some ice, you will hear about it for sure. But yes, he’s a pretty typical baby otter. The hand-reared ones tend to be a little bit more spoiled, obviously! He’s working through his spoiled childhood right now. (Laughs.)
M: I guess people that have been watching him have a pretty good idea of how exciting it can be to care for an animal like this. I think he was taking his crib apart pretty much nonstop yesterday, poor Kendra was trying to keep him in check.
SC: Yes, otters are very – with their front paws they’re very tactile and dextrous and they can actually unscrew things, they can take things apart. We have one otter in the family of otters at the aquarium, she likes to dive down and try and deconstruct her habitat. She’s also a hand-raised baby, by the way. They’re very mischievous animals.
M: There’s always people asking why is the crib made out of PVC pipes. Well, that’s why. We need easy construction materials to reconstruct this thing again if he takes it apart. (Laughs.)
SC: Exactly, and it’s big enough and the PVC piping is round and smooth so that he can’t actually bite much and latch onto it. So hopefully it stays in one piece through his childhood!
M: Do otters have food preferences? Like, do they like certain foods more than others, maybe not at all, that sea otters usually would?
SC: We only feed our otters items that otters would normally eat in the wild. that includes clams, squid, capelin, sometimes they’ll get live crab or sea urchin. Otters definitely have preferences. Some of them only like the nice smooth parts of the clam and don’t like the clam guts. Some of them won’t eat capelin, some of them love capelin. There are definitely preferences but all of them eat the clam and love the clam, and that’s the main staple in the otter diet. We actually make ice treats that have little bits of clam in them as well and they go crazy for those. But yes, just like people they do have preferences, but they are not offered an unlimited array of food items. It’s limited to just what they would eat in the wild.
M: And their favourite food, clams, of course is also the most expensive food item on the menu.
SC: (Laughs.) Yes. Also a lot of them really love shrimp, so we do make some treats out of shrimp as well. We do peel them for them because, like I said, they are all spoiled.
M: Of course. I remember peeling quite a few of those as well when I was in the fish house, so much fun. (Laughs.)
SC: Of course, definitely. (Laughs.) Some of actually prefer to peel their own shrimp. It’s funny, we had a rescued sea otter at the rescue centre several years ago, his name was Walter – some people might remember him, he was a lovely old man. He actually loved peeling his own shrimp and clams. He’d shell his own clams. I think that there was actually a video that went viral about him eating so many clams, he just piled the shells up on his chest.
M: So much fun. People are watching at the window at the aquarium right now, watching him on the grooming table. I couldn’t even describe what he’s doing there, but he’s wiggling on the grooming table, people are so excited to see him.
SC: Yes, he’s giving Sherri a lot to do on her volunteer shift with us today. (Laughs.)
M: She looks very busy, very patient too, you need to be so patient with this kind of patient.
SC: You really do.
M: There actually is one question regarding to wiggling. Why does Joey often wiggle, is this part of grooming?
SC: It’s likely a grooming thing. He’s wiggling his back on the towel to either dry off his fur or try and get some of the mattes or water that’s stored in there. As people probably know, because it’s been on the banner on the top of the video, a sea otter spends about 30% of their day grooming. Their fur is really, really important to them and so they need to keep all the water out, they need to keep it really clean, otherwise it is not waterproof and they can’t thermoregulate properly. So if their fur isn’t clean and the water gets through their fur and touches their skin, it can affect their temperature. Our otters, northern sea otters, live in pretty chilly water, if anyone has ever swam in our ocean you will know. So it’s really important for them to be able to keep their fur in good condition. He’s learning to groom, it’s one of the tools that he uses to get his coat in good shape.
M: People ask about this all the time as well, regarding the temperature in the room. We’ve got all those fans blowing cool air on him, we’ve got those ice packs underneath him and that’s for the same reason, right, he really doesn’t like it warm?
SC: Yes, that’s exactly right. Again, northern sea otters live in the north, a lot of them are in Alaska where it gets super chilly, and the west coast of Vancouver Island and kind of north of Vancouver Island. So the same way that the otter’s fur keeps it warm in cold water, it can also cool it down, by keeping it nicely inflated and cool in the water. They can haul out whenever they need to, to get their fur in order. Obviously Joey spends the majority of his time out of water currently, so it’s really important for us to be able to maintain his temperature. I don’t know if you can see it in the video, but there are air-conditioning units in there, and multiple fans, and cold water and ice, so there are a lot of tools to be able to regulate his temperature properly.
M: And you take his temperature every now and then too, right, to monitor his body condition.
SC: Yes. Not so much the older he gets, but when he was young and critical and we weren’t sure of his health status we definitely were taking his temperature multiple times a day, just to make sure that he was on the right track, and then we could make adjustments based on what his temperature was. So if he was chilly we’d do more grooming and dry him off. If he was warm we would give him a little swim. The thing with otters is you never want to blow warm air on them, or heat them, because they can overheat within minutes. So it’s really important, if you’ve got an otter that’s cold, we’ll just blow some cool air and use a towel and comb and dry them off and that usually helps to warm up their body temperature.
M: I think that also answers one of the questions we often get, whether you can take sea otters and keep them as pets. Definitely something we do not recommend, because they are very high maintenance animals.
SC: Absolutely not, please do not ever attempt that. If you do see an otter, either a pup or an adult, that you suspect is in distress or abandoned, you can call our rescue line which is 604-258-7325, and we’ll help you to figure out the best course of action. They also are nasty, or they can be nasty, especially wild ones. You do not want this otter anywhere near you or in your home. Please don’t attempt to touch it. (Laughs.)
M: Not if you are too attached to all your limbs and your nose, maybe, and your face. (Laughs.)
SC: Exactly. Fingers and appendages, yes. (Laughs.)
M: That makes perfect sense to me. There was also a lot of questions, as we were talking about water and him cooling off in a pool. People are asking when is he going to be moved into a larger habitat where he has access to a big pool.
SC: I can’t say the exact timeline. I would say that the next step would be a pool a little bit bigger than the black tub that’s in there, just to make sure if he is diving that his buoyancy is still active and he can come up for air when he needs to. What we’ve done in the past with some of our previous otter pups, is we’ve dropped one of our exhibit pools to a level where somebody could actually stand in there with him but it’s still deep enough for him to dive. It will be baby steps for him. Again, I can’t say when exactly that’s going to happen, but sometime in the pretty near future.
M: I’m sure that will be very interesting, very exciting to watch, I can’t wait for that to happen.
SC: Yes. They usually get pretty confused and head straight for the hollow right away, but once they realise that they’re an otter and they’re meant to be in that pool then it’s ‘Woo-hoo!’ (Laughs.)
M: (Laughs.) I remember that from all the other otter pups. It’s also a question we get, whether any of these animals were born in captivity, which isn’t true, right? All of these otters were previously rescued somewhere, they were all orphans?
SC: Correct, all of our otters are rescued otters. We have Katmai, who was a rescued sea otter pup from Alaska. She was separated from her mom during a storm, that was in 2012. We have Rialto, who is a rescued otter, he’s from Washington State, he was found on Rialto Beach also separated from his mom. I think there was also a big storm and really high tides, so he was rescued by the Seattle Aquarium. We have Mak and Kunik, who were also rescued in Alaska. We have Hardy, who was a rescue off Port Hardy and that was in 2017, so our rescue centre responded to him and raised him from a pup and now I think he weighs about 65 pounds, he’s a big kid. Then we have Tazlina, who was rescued last summer, and now we have Joey. I think that’s everybody, did I get them all? (Laughs.)
M: Don’t ask me, I’m so confused when I stand in front of that otter habitat, I’m literally just so confused, I can’t tell any of them apart, they’re all just otters to me now. (Laughs.)
SC: (Laughs.) Yes, they’re definitely hard to tell apart. They each have subtle little differences, like Hardy has got blonder cheeks than others, Mak’s got one whisker that sticks up, Katmai’s got a really light head because she’s the oldest otter. You’ve just got to watch them for a while to learn their differences. But yes, they’re all rescue otters, none of our otters have been born in captivity.
M: There was one question regarding breeding. Obviously we don’t have a breeding program at the Vancouver Aquarium, but people were asking how do we prevent them from breeding?
SC: We don’t have the permit for breeding and so we use a couple of different ways to prevent that from happening. We have several different pools that the otters can be moved around in, so sometimes if breeding behaviours are exhibited we will change up the pairings. We do monitor their bloodwork and their hormone levels, so we can have a good idea of when hormonal times are for the otters. It definitely takes some juggling by the marine mammal team to make sure that everybody stays healthy and happy.
M: What is the primary source of income for the rescue centre? I’m actually going to take that. The Marine Mammal Rescue Centre is part of Ocean Wise, the Ocean Wise Conservation Association, which is a non-profit registered charity here in Canada. That organisation runs both the Vancouver Aquarium and the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, and all the money that comes in from the Vancouver Aquarium through admissions, part of that is allocated to the rescue centre as well. But this year in particular a lot of the funding comes from donations from members of the public as well. So if you’re donating, or ‘adopting’ an animal just like Joey, you see on our livestream we have this donor ticker there at the very top where we recognise the people that donate to the rescue centre. Those donations directly fund the care of the animals at the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre and of former patients that now live at the Vancouver Aquarium, so all the rescued animals that now live at the aquarium are also funded by that. Some of that money even goes to fund people like Sion, veterinary technicians and the veterinary staff that are taking care of these animals, they are so vitally important.
We’re nearing the end of what I had planned for this session, but I’m going to ask one more question. People ask, because they watch a TV program showing the surrogate program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, why we don’t have such a program in Vancouver. Can you say anything about that at all?
SC: Sure, I’ll address that as best as I can. I think the surrogate program in Monterey is great. They have a different species of otter in California, they have southern sea otters, so there’s no crossover between ranges and territories and that kind of thing. Any otter that we rescue here could not be a part of their surrogate program there. Our last otter that we rescued in British Columbia was in 2017. To set up a surrogacy program like what they’ve got in Monterey takes an incredible amount of time, work, dedication and planning. I think that it’s not something that would be worth it here, with one otter rescued every couple of years. The southern sea otter population is also of concern more so than the northern sea otter population, so it’s important for those animals to get back out into the wild.
Having said that, I believe that most of the otter pups that they have put through the surrogate program and released still kind of hang out in the Monterey area just outside of the aquarium. (Laughs.) But yes, it’s more important for those guys to be out in the wild. That’s about as much as I know about that.
M: I think that’s quite comprehensive. I believe that’s something we always tell people, even the animals that are rescued in California, each of those surrogate mothers can only take care of one pup at a time and it takes quite a lot of time to get a pup to the point where it can be released and it has to be done very early on. It’s very complex, like you said, it’s very difficult to set up such a program. Thankfully we don’t have too many otters rescued here.
SC: The other thing is that all of our otters have been hand-raised by people in aquariums as well, so I’m not sure how good of an instructor or teacher our otters would be teaching a pup how to live out in the wild. ‘Why is nobody bringing me my clams by hand?’ (Laughs.)
M: Yes, I’m not sure if the skills they’ve acquired, like how to deconstruct a habitat, would necessarily help. (Laughs.)
SC: Right, exactly.
M: And considering that the otters in California tend to hang out just in front of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in the same area, I’m not sure what our harbours would look like with all those rescued pups hanging out in them.
SC: The pups would pop out and look around and be like ‘Nope, that doesn’t work’. (Laughs.)
M: I have one more question that I’m going to slip in. There’s been a question earlier of whether we give them clams in their shells when they’re older so that they can crack those open. Another question ‘I’ve seen other otters crack open their food with a favourite stone. Do you encourage that behaviour?’ I already know the answer, but can you tell us?
SC: (Laughs.) We always love to encourage natural behaviour. So we do often give our otters live food items, like they’ve been fed live crabs, we’ve done sea urchins, we’ve done clams. They love to crack open their clams themselves. Our otters definitely do exhibit those natural behaviours and they’ll pick a favourite toy or an ice treat or a shell or something that they have previously cracked open, and they save it in their little pocket. There’s so many names for those little pockets, it’s basically a pocket of skin kind of underneath their armpit that they can hoard food and rocks and other items in. Some people call the rock pockets, some people call them snack pockets, some people call them satchels. (Laughs.) So we definitely like to bring out those natural behaviours and they enjoy it every time we do.
M: I think somebody yesterday in the chat mentioned that they feel like an otter already because they are there just sitting on the couch and collecting food on their bellies.
SC: Yes, you use your chest as a table, for sure. I think during these COVID times we have all been guilty of that probably. (Laughs.)
M: We are all otters. One last question, because it’s connected to the breeding topic that we had a few minutes ago. Somebody asked, why does it take a breeding permit even if they are endangered?
SC: I can speak a little bit to this, I don’t know if you can add anything, Marcus, but any animal like a sea otter that we have rescued, we have done so under the direction of the government. So anything that we do with those animals we need permits. I don’t know, Marcus, if you know anything that you can add anything to that?
M: In Canada, we have the Marine Mammal Regulations and the Fisheries Act. The Marine Mammal Regulations execute the Fisheries Act. So basically we can’t even get anywhere near a marine mammal without a permit. So if we want to rescue an animal, we need a permit; if we want to release an animal back into the wild, we need a permit. If we want to move a marine mammal that we have previously rescued to another place, we need a permit. We need a permit for just about anything, and breeding is of course part of that. I think a more practical answer to that question is also, what do we do with all those otters? If we were to breed them, if we had, say, 20 otters, we can’t release them back into the wild because they wouldn’t survive. They don’t have the survival skills needed to be out in the wild. We could feed them in the harbour maybe, but I’m not sure that kind of tourist attraction would be worth it, it would probably cause disruption. (Laughs.)
SC: Good point. (Laughs.)
M: But basically, there is nothing we could do with them. Even if we raise 100 otters in captivity, there’s no way we could get them back into the wild. So endangered or not, that doesn’t really make a difference, because we just can’t release them back into the wild. It’s different with fish where we can raise millions of fish in captivity and release them back into the wild. That works to repopulate a fish population but unfortunately with most mammals it’s a little bit more complicated.
SC: Yes, definitely.
M: Well, Sion, thank you so much for joining me this morning for our Ask Me Anything here on YouTube also. Thank you also, our audience, for asking all those questions. Sion, are you up for doing this one more time sometime in the near future?
SC: Absolutely, yes. Thank you, everybody, for tuning in, and thanks for all the questions and all of the support with all the comments, we really appreciate it.
M: Thanks again, everybody, have a good rest of your day while watching our livestream on YouTube. I keep hearing from people that they no longer sleep, that they get in trouble with their bosses for watching this at work. I believe we have some person who is watching this at a fire station where she’s getting all the other people in that fire department slightly annoyed with her otter programming there. (Laughs.) We have somebody who tuned in to this program at a care home, so all the older people watching there are watching otters all day.
SC: Aww, that’s amazing.
M: We love hearing those stories, so please share them with us. Once again, thanks, everyone, for watching, and we’ll do this again. Sion, have a good day too.
SC: Thank you too, Marcus. Bye, everybody.