Cayucos, an orphaned California sea otter, has been at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago since January, and the pup is quickly learning important survival skills, thanks to a team of caretakers and 24-hour care.
One of the most important survival skills Cayucos needed to learn was grooming. Trainers taught her by grooming her and expecting that she would push them away, brush against her head, and realize grooming feels good.
"Sea otters have no fat to keep them warm. If she didn't groom, she would freeze to death," said Ken Ramirez, vice president of animal care and training for Shedd Aquarium.
During the Exxon Valdez oil spill, most sea otters didn't die from the toxic effects of oil, Ramirez said. They died because the oil matted their hair and took away the insulating properties. Ramirez and Shedd staff participated in animal rescue after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
"Sea otters have a luxurious coat with 10 million hairs per square inch, the thickest coat of all animals," he said. Southern sea otters were nearly hunted to extinction in the late 1800s for their coats, said Ramirez. The southern sea otter is now a "threatened" species under the Endangered Animals Act. Fewer than 3,000 of the species live in the wild today.
Cayucos is named after the California beach where she was found orphaned in December. She and her two siblings were brought to the nearby Monterey Bay Aquarium. The Shedd Aquarium was able to adopt the pup because it is one of the few facilities with the space and resources to care for a pup
Ramirez said the pup has learned quickly and is now eating solid foods, like clams, shrimp and pollock.
"She's gotten very good at thermoregulating and knows to go to land when she gets cold," Ramirez said.
Cayucos will slowly be introduced to the five Alaskan sea otters at Shedd. Cayucos has been quarantined to ensure she does not have any parasites or illness she could pass on to the other residents.
Ramirez explained Shedd staff will start by introducing Cayucos to the gentlest female sea otter.
"Even gentle play among otters can be rough. She'll learn to interact with otters," Ramirez said. He expects that Cayucos will be integrated with the other five sea otters within a year. She is expected to make some appearances in exhibits by summer.
Planning a visit to the Shedd Aquarium? Illinois Discount Days offer free general admission and discounts on packages.