Nothing but 'net: otter video scores a million views

March 21, 2013 - 1:30pm
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Eddie, a slam-dunk hit on the Internet, helps highlight animal welfare, conservation

Ellen’s people got in touch. Oprah’s did too. So did CNN, “Good Morning America,” the London Times and the BBC. Eddie the Oregon Zoo sea otter has been trending so hard over the past month that NBC’s Brian Williams even nominated him for a Medal of Otter.

On March 21, a video of Eddie slam-dunking a toy basketball to exercise his arthritic elbows surpassed a million views on the zoo’s YouTube channel — and that doesn’t count the many unofficial videos online.

Jenny DeGroot, the zoo’s lead sea otter keeper, is a bit bemused by all the attention that’s been coming Eddie’s way, but says she’s grateful for the chance to highlight sea otters and their importance to the Pacific Coast ecosystem. Considered a keystone species, sea otters play a vital role in promoting healthy kelp forests, which in turn support thousands of organisms.

“Sea otters are listed as threatened on the Endangered Species list,” DeGroot said. “They eat a lot of invertebrates that filter the seawater, so anything that winds up in the water — pollution, oil spills, etc. — can wind up in the sea otters as well.”

DeGroot began training Eddie to put a ball through a plastic basketball hoop last year after zoo veterinarians discovered arthritis in his elbows. The vets prescribed regular exercise as a way to improve Eddie’s joint function, but that recommendation presented a challenge for keepers.

“We had to get creative,” DeGroot explained. “There aren’t many natural opportunities for Eddie to work those arthritic elbow joints, because sea otters don’t use their front limbs to swim — they swim by moving their back legs and flippers. So training him with the basketball hoop was a way to get Eddie using those front limbs more regularly.”

Eddie’s athletic exploits take place off-exhibit, in a behind-the-scenes training pool connected to the zoo’s Steller Cove habitat via an underwater tunnel. Although a newcomer to basketball, Eddie is 15 years old, which is considered geriatric for a sea otter. His fur, once a rich brown over his entire body, has turned creamy white around his face and neck. Still, keepers say age hasn’t slowed him down much and he seems to enjoy the exercise — as well as the fishy treats he gets whenever he scores.

Eddie and Thelma, his longtime Steller Cove companion, have lived at the Oregon Zoo since 2000, on long-term loan from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Both otters were rescued off the coast of California, where they had been abandoned as pups in 1998. Lacking the skills to survive on their own in the wild, they were taken to the Monterey Bay Aquarium for rehabilitation but were eventually deemed non-releasable.

Sea otters once ranged along the north Pacific Rim from Japan to Baja California, including along the Oregon coast, and are thought to have numbered between 150,000 and 300,000. Prized for their soft, luxurious fur, the animals were hunted to the brink of extinction during the late 1800s and early 1900s. By 1911, aggressive fur-trapping campaigns had reduced the global sea otter population to around 2,000.

Although now protected against trapping, sea otters are threatened by oil spills, fishing nets and infectious diseases. Biologists estimate the population has dropped by 50 percent over the past 30 years. Wild sea otters have not established colonies off the Oregon coast since 1907, though a few individuals have been sighted, most recently in Depoe Bay in 2009.