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Clam dunk: Sea otter Juno plays basketball to stay in shape

June 9, 2023, 10:38 a.m.
Sea otter Juno holds a basketball up to a stone hoop

The Oregon Zoo’s marine mammal all-star brings her hoops game front of house

The NBA Finals aren’t the only must-see basketball this season. Juno, a rescued sea otter at the Oregon Zoo, is swimming straight to the hoop — and she can dunk with the best of them.

Several years ago, zoo care staff trained the otter to put a ball through a plastic basketball hoop as a way of exercising her elbow joints. Until recently, her athletic exploits took place off-view, in a behind-the-scenes training pool.

Now, thanks an assist from the zoo maintenance team, Juno slams it home in a custom-made hoop mounted to the rock wall of her habitat. Zoo guests lucky enough to catch one of her training sessions can see some exciting basketball action — no NBA Finals tickets required.

At 9 Juno’s still a relatively young sea otter, but moving her front limbs is a way of staving off stiffness and arthritis as she ages, according to zoo caregivers. Plus, she can’t get enough of the game.

“Juno loves to play basketball,” said Nicole Nicassio-Hiskey, the zoo’s senior marine life keeper. “She gets so excited whenever we bring the ball out for her training sessions. And she’s good too!”

Sea otters are known for their playfulness, which Nicassio-Hiskey thinks gives Juno an advantage on the court. During their daily training sessions, care staff bring two small basketballs along. If she chooses to, Juno can pick one up in her front paws and dunk it into her special basket. She also “dribbles” the ball by swimming around the hoop with it. She ends each session with some of her favorite fresh seafood.

Juno is part of a marine mammal basketball dynasty. Years ago, Oregon Zoo caregivers trained sea otter Eddie to dunk as a way of exercising the aging otter’s arthritic elbow joints. Eddie, nearly 21 years old when he died in 2018, was one of the oldest known sea otters in the world and earned worldwide fame for his dunking skills.

Juno and the two other sea otters at the Oregon Zoo — Lincoln and Uni Sushi — are rescue animals, orphaned off the coast of California as tiny pups and brought to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s rescue and care program for rehabilitation. Unable to be paired with a surrogate mom, they were deemed non-releasable by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Sea otters, once abundant along the Oregon coast, were hunted to extinction here in the early 1900s. The zoo is helping to bring them back through a partnership with the Elakha Alliance, a tribal-initiated nonprofit leading the reintroduction effort. Restoring sea otters to the Oregon Coast would help protect the marine ecosystems that all Oregonians depend on.