inspired law already dead, orphaned puppies are bred Otter

Monday, March 5th 2012. | Science News

ba-otter05_ph_WRE0107279267_part6No mother is ordinary, but Toola brought the delicate art of child-rearing to a level that benefited her entire whiskery, fun-loving species.

The California sea otter, who died Saturday in Monterey, not only raised more than a dozen orphaned otter pups, but also inspired important legislation and changed the way scientists handle abandoned otter babies.

And she did it all while battling a chronic neurological illness.

“Toola was the most amazing role model,” said Karl Mayer, animal care coordinator at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Otter Research and Conservation Program, where Toola lived for more than a decade. “We all miss her, but we’re just very thankful for everything she gave us.”

Aquarium staff described Toola as the most important animal in the 28-year history of the program, which studies the threatened California sea otter and treats those that are injured. Before Toola, orphaned sea otter pups rescued by the program would become acclimated to people and couldn’t be released back in coastal waters.

All that changed with Toola. She arrived at the aquarium in July 2001 after someone found her floundering and pregnant on Pismo Beach. Aquarium veterinarians discovered she had toxoplasmosis, a parasite spread by cat feces and a common threat to sea otters.

The pathogen had infected her brain, leaving her with frequent seizures and an almost certain death sentence. Aquarium staff were able to control her convulsions with twice-daily doses of Phenobarbital, but she would never be released back to the wild.

A month or two after arriving at the aquarium, Toola gave birth to a stillborn pup. That’s when Toola’s motherhood miracle happened.

“Coincidentally, at the same time we received a pup that was only 2 weeks old. We thought, why not? Let’s see what happens if we put them together,” said aquarium spokeswoman Alison Barratt.
Fostering orphaned pups

Toola didn’t hesitate. She nursed the orphaned pup like he was her own, taught him to open clamshells with rocks, how to eat a crab without getting pinched, and other tricks of sea otter life.

That pup, raised by Toola instead of humans, was able to return to the Pacific, where he’s now king of a pack at Elkhorn Slough and has fathered countless pups himself.

Toola went on to foster 12 more pups, each for five months or so. Of the 13, two are still at the aquarium, too young for release; five are cavorting around the coastline making babies of their own; and six are unaccounted for, either dead or having shaken off their tracking tags.

Since Toola, aquarium staff have promoted several other otters as foster moms, and the program is thriving, Mayer said.

Otters need all the help they can get. The species Enhydra lutris, found between Santa Barbara and Half Moon Bay, was almost extinct a century ago thanks to overhunting but has slowly come back. Historically the Central California coast had a population of more than 17,000 otters, but now there are about 2,700, Barratt said.

Toxoplasmosis is a perpetual threat, but pollution, climate change, fishing entanglements and sharks don’t help, either. The explosion in the seal and sea lion population has led to an increase in great white sharks, which like to eat seals and, when they can find them, sea otters.

A few years ago, Toola’s story caught the attention of a boy who happened to be the son of then-Assemblyman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento. Jones’ son persuaded his dad to write legislation to protect sea otters. Signed into law in 2006, the bill requires toxoplasmosis warnings on cat litter bags, creates a sea otter donation check-box on tax forms, and increases funding for research and protection. The tax check-box has raised more than $1 million for sea otter protection.

But politics were not really Toola’s milieu. She loved raising babies, and she loved teasing the aquarium staff. Among her favorite games was pretending she was going to swim into a net, and then scooting away for an endless game of chase.

“She’d foil us every time, and I’ve caught thousands of animals,” Mayer said. “Toola went along with the program as long as Toola wanted to go along with the program. There was never a doubt as to who was in charge. She was a nonconformist in the best possible way.”
Surrounded by staff, friends

Toola’s most recent foster child was a male whom she was cuddling as recently as Friday. Late in the day, staff noticed she was listless and refusing food, and early Saturday she died naturally at the aquarium, surrounded by staff and her otter friends. She was 15 or 16.

Her legacy will endure for generations, said Steve Shimek, director of the Otter Project, a Monterey nonprofit.

“Toola was the animal who led us to the solution over how best to raise otter pups: Let an otter do it,” he said. “She was a wonderful mother and a wonderful teacher, and we’re thankful for everything she did.”

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