Farewell to Joy and Toola, Surrogate Sea Otter Moms Extraordinaire at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Joy the surrogate sea otter mother
Joy the Sea Otter (photo by Monterey Bay Aquarium)

I am sad to hear of the passing of one of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s sea otter surrogate moms, Joy. It is also a sad day for the Sea Otter Research and Conservation Program (SORAC) because they have lost their top two prolific surrogate mothers in less than 6 months. I volunteered at SORAC for 4 years, and for the last 2 years I commuted two hours each way from Oakland to Monterey, California to make my Friday swing shift. It was an amazingly diverse bunch of people to work with, and for you statisticians, not only were the majority the paid workers and volunteers women, but an inordinate (50%?) were left handed!

I met Toola (who passed away March 3, 2012) when she was just “207,” and she had just become the first sea otter mother to adopt an orphan pup (#217) in captivity. SORAC had just installed closed circuit video cameras, and it was a joy to watch Toola so lovingly groom and feed her new pup.

Up to then, orphaned pups were cared for, hands on, by human surrogate mothers (or otter pops as we lovingly called the male workers!). The bond I felt holding that tiny and frail sea otter pup, only days old, in the palm of my hand is only matched by the birth of my own human children! That pup is now an adult exhibit sea otter, which makes me feel quite old. The first creature I ever bottle fed was a sea otter pup, and I had painstakingly hand shucked dozens of clams to make its formula! Every human sea otter surrogate mom would respond promptly to a pup’s signature ear piercing scream, “eek, eek, eek” as they would to a human baby’s cry.

Now onto boisterous Joy: I just remember hearing the radio and telephone calls that Joy was once again interacting with kayakers, and that it was time to pick her up. I occasionally participated in field rescues, but most of the time I was on the receiving end at the aquarium where I helped to cart around (SORAC uses dog kennels), weigh, and help the workers and veterinarian with a physical exam. There is nothing more surreal than seeing, under bright examination lights, a once screaming otter subdued under anesthesia with his or her massive set of chompers clasped around an intubation tube!

Once deemed captive, my only interaction with Joy was to throw food into her tank, and later clean her tank (the stench of which I remember quite well-rotting seafood mixed with sea otter poop). At least with her, we no longer had to use the Darth Vader suit that consisted of a black welder’s helmet and black poncho that we used with releasable sea otters so they did not imprint on humans. I also got to help with a few training sessions with her. Most sea otters adore shrimp and will gobble it up, and will cast aside squid thrown onto their chest!

So I hope both Toola and Joy are receiving all the shrimp they can eat up above, and I wish the next generation of surrogate sea otter moms good luck as they have a tough act to follow!

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