Toola, the first captive sea otter ever to serve as a surrogate mother — and all while living with a chronic neurological illness — died on Saturday at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. She was thought to be 15 or 16 years old and had raised 13 pups over the years, 11 of whom have been released into the wild and 5 of whom are still surviving, including the very first pup she reared in November of 2001; he is now “king of a pack at Elkhorn Slough” and the father of a number of pups himself, reports the San Francisco Chronicle.
Andrew Johnson, manager of the Aquarium’s Sea Otter Research and Conservation program , described Toola as the “most important animal” in the history of the Aquarium’s Sea Otter Research and Conservation program. Indeed, she has left a true legacy, showing that the best way to raise otter pups is to let an otter herself do the job. Before Toola, orphaned pups raised by the program would become acclimated to humans, so that they could no longer be released back into the wild. As Karl Mayer, the program’s animal care coordinator, says, after Toola’s success as a surrogate mother, several other otters have also been trained as foster mothers.
Toola was found pregnant on Pismo Beach in July of 2001 and brought to the aquarium, where veterinarians discovered that she had toxoplasmosis, a brain infection from a parasite in cat feces that caused her to have seizures. Aquarium staff were able to control these by giving Toola twice-daily doses of Phenobarbital but were unable to release her back into the wild.
A month or two after she came to the aquarium, Toola gave birth to a stillborn pup. The aquarium had just received an orphaned two-week-old male pup and decided to see what might happen if the two otters were put together. The San Francisco Chronicle describes what happened:
Toola didn’t hesitate. She nursed the orphaned pup like he was her own, taught him to open clamshells with rocks, how to eat a crab without getting pinched, and other tricks of sea otter life.
Besides raising a number of pups, Toola also inspired legislation to help other sea otters. Once numbering more than 17,000, today there are only about some 2,700 otters on the central coast of California due to toxoplasmosis, pollution, climate change, entanglements in fishing nets and sharks. After a boy whose father was then-Assemblyman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, learned about Toola, Jones introduced legislation to better protect California’s sea otter population in 2006. Under the law, cat food bags must have toxoplasmosis warnings, tax forms have a sea otter donation check-box and funding for research and protection of sea otters has increased.
The San Jose Mercury News says that, last Wednesday, Toola seemed “off,” with her appetite decreasing. Blood tests revealed that she had a problem with her kidneys. On Friday, she was cuddling a pup but was listless by the end of the day and a chest x-ray showed her heart was enlarged. She was stable when staff left her at 2:45am on Saturday morning and then, when they returned at 6:00am, she had passed.
This video shows Toola giving herself a head massage. It goes without saying, she is much missed.
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Photo by brunkfordbraun