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They've got game: 2 more sea otters join hoops team

Nov. 17, 2023, 2:39 p.m.
Topic: Animal well-being
Two sea otters in a pool, one is holding a basketball

Innovative training activity offers health benefits and enriching fun for rescued otters  

Trail Blazers’ rookies aren’t the only young hoopsters making a splash this season. A new generation of stars is on the rise at the Oregon Zoo, where sea otters Lincoln and Sushi have joined an exercise routine that’s considered a slam dunk for animal health and well-being. 

Several years ago, zoo caregivers began training elderly sea otter Eddie to put a ball through a mini basketball hoop 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 on the planet and earned worldwide fame for his dunking skills. 

In 2019, Juno took up the mantle. The playful marine mammal caught on quickly, bringing a youthful exuberance to the traditional sea otter dunk — sometimes adding a spirited 360-degree spin before rising up and jamming it home. Now 9-year-old Juno is a seasoned slam-dunk veteran, and youngsters Lincoln (6) and Sushi (4) have joined the team. 

“Juno is definitely the star,” said Nicole Nicassio-Hiskey, the zoo’s senior marine life keeper. “But our two new ‘rookies’ are bringing a lot of energy and enthusiasm to the game.” 

Experts believe positive-reinforcement training plays a critical role in animal well-being. And while the sea otter shoot-around is mostly an enrichment exercise now, veterinarians say it could have additional health benefits as the young otters get older, staving off stiffness and arthritis in their senior years. The movements mimic a natural behavior called a “spy hop,” in which wild sea otters will rise straight up out of the ocean to survey their surroundings above the waves. 

Until recently, the otters’ basketball exploits took place off-view, in a behind-the-scenes training pool. Now, thanks to an assist from the zoo maintenance team, they slam it home in a custom-made hoop mounted to the rock wall of their Pacific Shores habitat. Zoo guests lucky enough to catch one of the training sessions can see some exciting basketball action — no season tickets required.  

Considered a keystone species, sea otters play critical role in the Pacific Coast marine ecosystem, promoting healthy kelp forests, which in turn support thousands of organisms. 

All three sea otters at the Oregon Zoo 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 surrogate moms, 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 and have not established permanent residence in the state for more than a century. The zoo is helping to bring sea otters back to Oregon through a partnership with the Elakha Alliance, a nonprofit that’s leading reintroduction efforts. Though currently protected from hunting by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, sea otters continue to be threatened by oil spills, fishing nets and infectious diseases.