ESC Blog Post

Ellie, An Otter Ambassador | Shedd Aquarium

Guest post by Christy Sterling, supervisor of penguins and otters, John G. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago

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During more than 50 years of responding to animals in urgent need, Shedd Aquarium has become a trusted leader in rescue and rehabilitation, especially with sea otters. As one of only 12 zoological organizations in the United States able to offer homes for rescued southern sea otters that cannot be returned to the wild, Shedd Aquarium provides crucial care to these animals, which are ranked as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

For the last 11 years, as a Shedd Aquarium marine mammal trainer, I’ve taken part in answering many of the calls when animals need assistance. The first week in January of this year, wildlife rescuers pulled a 6-pound sea otter pup from storm-driven waves on a California beach. Attempts to locate her mother were unsuccessful, and the pup was taken to Monterey Bay Aquarium for care. Without a mother to teach her survival skills and now accustomed to people, the pup would not be able to go back to the ocean. She needed a permanent home, and Shedd stepped up to provide it. Late in January, she arrived in Chicago and took up residence in a special sea otter nursery at Shedd.

I was on the team that provided the otter pup, whom aquarium members voted to name “Ellie,” with around-the-clock care. She quickly graduated from formula in a bottle to chopped bits of clam, squid and mussel, being hand-fed as often as seven times a day to provide her with enough food—30 percent of her body weight—to grow and be healthy. As soon as her fluffy, buoyant baby fur was shed for a waterproof coat, she got pretty good at swimming. She was already learning to groom her fur, but we finished the job by toweling the hard-to-reach places. In fact, she was pretty independent compared to some of the very young pups we’ve taken in.

And she was, and still is, active! Very soon, during play-and-training sessions, Ellie was diving and picking up toys from the bottom of her habitat, and when we gave her “kelp” strands—actually heavy-duty car wash strips—she’d pull them into the water and swim through them, just like in a kelp forest. After all that play, she’d take a nap wrapped in the kelp. Then she’d start over! Watching her discover her world each day was truly amazing.

Now Ellie is out of the nursery and living with our four other sea otters. She can crack clamshells and eat whole crabs like the adults. She’s learning behaviors that let her help us care for her and, of course, playing. With so many potential playmates, her days are more active than ever, and she continues to be a joy to watch.

But there’s a serious side to having Ellie, too. She and the other sea otters are ambassadors for their species, helping our guests understand how their actions on land can affect wildlife in aquatic environments. Like the 32,000 other animals at Shedd, Ellie connects people to the living world, inspiring them to make a difference.

– Christy Sterling, supervisor of penguins and otters, John G. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago

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Visit Shedd Aquarium during Sea Otter Awareness Week, September 18-21, 2016, to visit Ellie and learn about the challenges that continue to threaten sea otters. While supplies last, look for a complimentary Endangered Species Chocolate milk chocolate bar at the aquarium during Sea Otter Awareness Week (be sure to look inside the wrapper for fun facts about sea otters)! You can also support Shedd Aquarium’s top-quality animal care by symbolically adopting an otter.

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