MONTEREY, Calif. – Toola the otter had no training for the task that fell into her lap. Or snuggled up against her chest.

But for four years she has been a successful surrogate mother at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the first one in captivity.

In the past, rescued sea otter pups had to be raised by people. And although the aquarium had tried several approaches, it had not been wildly successful in returning pups to the wild, said Andy Johnson, manager for its Sea Otter Research and Conservation Program.

Either the pups didn’t survive, or they tended to feel too comfortable around people, particularly any divers and kayakers that happened by. Besides, as adults, released otters pretty much struck out in the reproduction department.

So the idea that sea otters themselves could mother rescued pups had been floating around for a long time, Johnson said. “We just needed the right female.”

Along came Toola – a pregnant adult infected with toxoplasmosis, a neurological disease caused by parasites that has killed many California sea otters in recent years.

She recovered, but the disease left her with a permanent seizure disorder that makes it impossible for her to survive on her own.

The disease also caused her pup to be stillborn. When that happened, “It made us think, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if a pup came in the door?”‘ Johnson said.

The next day a 2-week-old male pup did just that. He needed a mother to nurse from. Toola needed a pup to nurse.

“So we introduced them,” said Karl Mayer, animal-care coordinator for the seal otter program. “… He latched on and started nursing right away.”

That pup is now alive and well and living somewhere in the Monterey Bay, the first graduate of the program. Toola has since acquired two colleagues – Joy, who has reared four pups, and Rosa, who has just weaned her first. But Toola remains the matriarch of surrogate mothers and is now raising her fifth pup, an 18-week-old female known only as “327.”

327 was just 3 days old when she was found March 24 on a beach near San Luis Obispo, Calif. She was about 3½ pounds and 20 inches long and still had part of her umbilical cord attached.

Before rescuers took her to the aquarium, they looked long and hard for her mother.

At that age, Mayer said, “A pup is just a blob, a ball of fluff.” It’s good at floating, but that’s about all. So when its mother has to leave to hunt for food, it can drift away.

A mother who has accidentally lost her pup will call to it and swim around trying to find it, Mayer said.

But there are other scenarios. A mother may “lose” her pup on purpose if she’s having a hard time just finding enough food for herself. Or a young, inexperienced mother may lose her pup because she doesn’t know enough to keep track of it. Or a mother may get hurt or killed and be unable to come back to her pup.

These are dire scenarios. “The youngest pups won’t survive more than a couple of hours without their mother,” Mayer said. One of those scenarios seems to have happened to 327.

So she was taken to the aquarium. Toola was available to be her surrogate mother, but the two of them couldn’t be paired up right away. This time Toola hadn’t just given birth herself, so she didn’t have any milk for a baby.

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Except for the first one in the program, all surrogate-raised pups have been raised by hand until they’re 6 to 8 weeks old. But the hands that raise them are always wearing latex gloves. And they belong to people wearing big, black capes and welders’ helmets to help prevent the pups from getting too familiar with humans.

The youngest pups are fed nothing but formula, which mimics the protein, fat and carbohydrate content of sea otter milk. But it doesn’t even come close to mimicking the taste.

“So if the pups have already been nursing, it takes an adjustment period,” Mayer said.

Something else isn’t quite right about the formula: Calorie-wise, of what goes in, almost all comes out. The problem seems to be that the formula doesn’t have enough liquid to enable the pup to assimilate it. The solution is to inject fluids under the pups’ skin twice a day, until they are about 4 weeks old and start eating solid food such as squid, clams, shrimp and crabs.

Their new food choices have the advantage of being 70 percent to 75 percent water and the bonus of tasting good. Soon the pups are turning up their noses at their formula.

A pup needs about two weeks’ practice to get good enough at feeding itself to go live with its surrogate mother – should she choose to accept it.

When a pup and its surrogate are introduced, it usually isn’t mother love at first sight. More often it’s mother love at second to seventh sight.

The surrogate has to be willing to do several things: Share her food. Groom the pup. Let the pup climb on her chest, then carry it around and act protective. Let the pup try to nurse. In every case, the surrogate mother has ended up producing some milk after a while.

The surrogate-mother program at the aquarium focuses on raising individual pups, but it’s intended to help save the species, the ultimate goal of the aquarium’s sea otter rescue program.

In 2003 the aquarium decided the health of the population as a whole must take precedence over the survival of any one individual.

Of the eight pups released in the program, six are presumed to be alive. Of the two known deaths, one was from a white-shark attack. Sharks are a threat to otters completely raised in the wild.

It’s too soon to know if the surrogate-raised pups will breed successfully, but that’s the hope.

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When Toola first met 327, she was not enchanted. As long as the pup stayed away from her, she ignored her. But whenever the pup approached, Toola would bat her away with her paws or even bite. “She’d give her a fairly clear message,” Mayer said. “… “Don’t try to jump on top of me.”‘

After about a week of that, the scientists decided to give things a rest. They tried again a couple of days later.

“All of a sudden, when the pup was nearby, Toola was more tolerant,” Mayer recalled. “Pretty soon she had pulled the pup up on her chest and was starting to groom her.”

These days Toola is teaching 327 some wise lessons, such as how to hit two shellfish together to crack them open. Not every adult otter knows how to do that.

But Toola may show her greatest wisdom in the way she shares her food with 327, which she does happily. “But the pup is still pretty uncoordinated,” Mayer said, “so it’s likely to drop stuff.”

So, Toola knows better than to give away the best parts.



(c) 2005, The Monterey County Herald (Monterey, Calif.).

Visit the Monterey County Herald’s World Wide Web site at http://www.montereyherald.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): ENV-OTTERS

AP-NY-07-29-05 0613EDT


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