Rescued sea otter pup is almost ready for zoo debut

June 17, 2014 - 10:23am

Playful pup Juno meets elderly Thelma behind the scenes at zoo's Steller Cove

Oregon Zoo visitors might get to meet a new otter soon. Juno, the rescued sea otter pup who has been settling in behind the scenes at the Steller Cove habitat, had her first meet-up with one of the zoo's two elderly otters this week — and keepers say the pair got along swimmingly.

"The introduction went very well," said Nicole Nicassio-Hiskey, the Oregon Zoo's senior marine life keeper. "Based on the behavior we saw today — mutual respect for one another — we think they'll be ready for a public debut very soon."

The 5-month-old Juno met 16-year-old Thelma for the first time on Monday, under the watchful eye of keepers.

"They make a striking pair," Nicassio-Hiskey said. "Juno's much smaller than Thelma and has rich brown fur over her entire body, whereas Thelma's fur has turned white around her face and neck. She's 16, which is considered elderly for a sea otter, but she's spry — very energetic and playful."

Thelma was enjoying a seafood breakfast — shrimp and clams — when keepers first gave Juno access to her area.

"She didn't react much until Juno came over and touched her rear flipper," Nicassio-Hiskey said. "At that point, Thelma bear-hugged her and started sniffing her all over. She held Juno tightly and swam her around the pool and under the water. Juno had several opportunities to swim away, but she kept going back to Thelma."

The two otters played around a ramp in their pool for a while, poking their paws at each other through holes in the grating.

"After about a half hour of that, they hauled themselves out on the deck to rest and groom," Nicassio-Hiskey said. "We shifted them to a different pool later, and Juno tried to nurse on Thelma, which is a great sign that they are bonding."

Eventually, the zoo also plans to introduce the youngster to its male otter, Eddie. This meeting won't take place until Juno has grown larger — probably in several months when she is closer to full-grown.

Juno, who arrived at the zoo May 13, was discovered abandoned on a California beach in January. The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Sea Otter Research and Conservation program arranged for her rescue — but, with no experienced adult otters available to rear her, the young pup was deemed non-releasable by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who approved her transfer to the Oregon Zoo.

"I am really proud of this staff," said curator Amy Cutting, who oversees the zoo's North America section. "They believed they could accommodate another otter and give this youngster a home. With no room for her in the rehabilitation program, she did not have much of a future if they had not stepped up. Of course, it is difficult to watch Thelma and Eddie grow older, but Juno is the beginning of the next generation of otters at the Oregon Zoo. I'm just so glad that our two older otters will get some time with her."

"It should be rejuvenating for Thelma and Eddie," Nicassio-Hiskey said. "We have a lot of really old animals here, so we focus quite a bit on geriatric care."

In 2012, Thelma and Eddie were included in an Oregonian article about elderly Oregon Zoo inhabitants highlighting the ways keepers and veterinary staff care for animals approaching the end of life. Eddie gained an additional measure of fame the following year, when animal-care staff trained the aging otter to dunk a toy basketball as therapy for his arthritic elbow joints. A video about this behind-the-scenes exercise routine went viral, clocking nearly 1.3 million views on the zoo's YouTube channel.

Eddie and Thelma have lived at the Oregon Zoo since 2000, on long-term loan from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Like Juno, both were rescued along the coast of California, where they were 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 by USFWS.