Orphaned Baby Otter Finds Home and Family at Shedd Aquarium

Credit: John G. Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez
Cayucos takes a swim around her new home on her first day at Shedd Aquarium.

It's a well-known fact that otters are ridiculously cute. They're playful, silly, and just look at those sweet little faces! Precious!

It's no surprise then that when we read an article and saw a video at Today.com about Cayucos, a baby otter that had been orphaned and rescued, and who is currently being raised by a team of "surrogate mothers" at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium, we just had to know more. We went straight to the source and asked Ken Ramirez, executive vice president of animal care and training, some really hard-hitting questions — including how the staff keep themselves from snuggling that darling little baby all day long.

Credit: John G. Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez
One of several surrogate mothers feeds Cayucos shortly after her arrival at Shedd.

Q: How common is it for orphaned otters to be rescued by a facility like Shedd Aquarium?

A: Ken Ramirez: It really depends on several factors. Facilities like Shedd Aquarium try to help out as much as possible whenever we have the space in our exhibits to house additional otters. It also requires quite a significant investment in staffing, so each facility has to cover those costs themselves. And it depends on how many pups are stranded and need to be rescued. There could be a few in a year or there could be none — it just depends on the particular year.

Q: Can they ever be released back into the wild? 

A: Monterey Bay Aquarium has been able to successfully rehabilitate otters using surrogate sea otters and release them back into the wild. But this is a new process and one that has not yet been perfected — thus some otters have to be reared by humans. When that happens, as with Cayucos, they are not able to be released back into the wild due to being too comfortable around people, which would be a threat to their safety and to human safety if they were released back into the wild.

Q: What are the biggest challenges you face with Cayucos? 

A: Caring for a pup is very much like being a parent with a newborn baby; you have to be extra vigilant, feedings round the clock, care at all hours. This can be taxing and very demanding — but, also like being a parent, we are very happy to do it.

Q: I see that Cayucos has reached a number of developmental milestones. Can you talk about some of the milestones she has yet to reach? 

A: Some of the milestones she has yet to reach include being completely independent in her grooming, learning to forage food effectively and learning how to open and eat shellfish. She also needs to be weaned off of formula and she must start to eat all solid foods on a regular daytime schedule. Eventually she will need to learn how to socialize and live with the other otters in our collection, and be advanced in her training.

Credit: John G. Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez
Cayucos, like other otters her age, is very playful and loves toys.

Q: Otters are so playful and social. What are some of the ways your staff plays with Cayucos? 

A: We will give her a variety of toys throughout the day and also give her ice to play with. She will sometimes bring toys over toward us, and we will toss them back out for her to bring back again. We also spend a lot of time grooming her, which helps with the quality of her coat but [also] gives her needed social interaction, which seems to be something she enjoys, and it is certainly something we enjoy.

Q: When will Cayucos be ready to live with the rest of the otters at the aquarium? 

A: She still needs to do a bit of growing and become more independent in her grooming. She also needs to be on a feed schedule that is the same as the adults. We probably will introduce her to one of our female otters in one to two months.

Q: Is there anything particularly notable about her personality? 

A: She is very curious and playful. She creates games for herself with the toys — putting them in her mouth and porpoising around in her habitat.

Q: How do you keep yourselves from snuggling her all the time?  

A: It is difficult not to want to constantly watch her, but knowing that she needs to learn to be independent and having many other cleaning or food preparation tasks [that need] to be accomplished in our day helps us to be able to break away.

Q: She might be the cutest thing I've ever seen. Agreed?

A: I don't think we would argue with that; she definitely is adorable. We are pleased that we could give her a home.

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