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Making friends with an otter is a fulfilling day

October 27, 2006|Pete Thomas

It's sad to think that California's sea otters were once hunted to the brink of extinction, reduced to only 20 animals.

Had hunters completely wiped out these endearing, furry little animals, I would not have had the pleasure of shaking hands with Charlie.

Charlie, one of three southern sea otters being cared for at the Aquarium of the Pacific, was himself on the brink of extinction.

On a cold winter night, shortly after his birth, he became separated from his mother. He washed ashore all a-shiver in Monterey Bay, his umbilical cord still attached.

Rescuers whisked him to a care facility at Monterey Bay Aquarium, where experts determined that he would never learn to fend for himself in the wild.

Ultimately, along with other stranding victims and current housemates Summer and Brook, he ended up at the newly christened Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach.

That was eight years ago. Today, the three playful members of one of the facility's most popular exhibits are pampered to the point where Summer and Brook should change their names to Princess.

As for Charlie, well, he knows a good thing when he sees one: Two cute girlfriends. Four square meals a day. A spacious pool. Free health care. And a steady parade of visitors before whom to ham it up each day.

Spoiled rotten?

"We like to say that they're well treated," says Alicia Hipp of the aquarium's education department.

Indeed, of the 12,500 animals on display, many require extra-special attention. I discovered this -- and that you can have an enjoyable outdoors experience indoors -- after participating in a program called "Sea Otter Encounter."

Depending on timing and feeding schedules, guests are taken behind the scenes and introduced to some of the aquarium's more colorful characters.

I fed krill to newly born bamboo sharks, then moved a few doors down and met Grapefruit, a giant Pacific octopus so-named because of his size when he arrived.

Now the rust-colored mollusk has a mantle resembling a large gourd, and long slithery tentacles lined with suction cups the size of quarters.

Grapefruit and I became friends, naturally, after I gave him a shelled green mussel and part of a clam. So thankful was this soft creature that he latched onto my arm and tried to pull me in for a swim.

"They play a lot of tug of war," exclaimed Carolyn McDonald.

Grapefruit's favorite pastime, the doting aquarist added, is to position himself over the air-pipe, beyond the view of visitors, and "blow himself up like a big balloon."

His favorite toy is a plastic Mr. Potato Head, in which McDonald places a large herring, leaving it up to Grapefruit to disassemble the toy to get the prize.

"If they don't have enough stuff to do, they will start to take apart the exhibit," McDonald explained.

"He gets lots of toys. I try to give him something new to do every week."

I also wanted to spread a little sunshine in a captive animal's life and found my chance in the kitchen, while preparing lunch for the otters.

When Rob Mortensen, assistant curator, wasn't looking, I slipped a few extra shrimp into Charlie's ration, which also included squid, clams and fish -- all restaurant grade, of course.

Through the backdoor we went, and Charlie was so overjoyed that he flung himself out of the pool and scooted our way on his hind flippers.

Mortensen had left Summer and Brook in the viewing area. He used Charlie to illustrate how well these animals are trained and cared for.

Charlie, for example, is the only sea otter in captivity that does not need to be restrained while blood is drawn with a syringe during physical examinations.

That's astonishing considering that sea otters, which can weigh up to 65 pounds, are relatives of badgers and wolverines, powerful and downright fierce at times.

"It's a recipe for disaster: Put the cutest face you can on the meanest animal you can find," Mortensen said, while revealing scars on his wrists, courtesy of his charges.

Thus, it was suggested that I feed Charlie through a large hole in the glass. Still, he could easily have chomped my fingers and was careful to take only food.

His teeth were exceptionally white.

"We brush them regularly," Mortensen said.

Charlie is a glutton, like all sea otters, who consume about 25% of their body weight every day. Charlie, Summer and Brook ring up a combined annual food bill of $45,000 -- nearly one-fifth of the facility's entire food budget.

And that's not counting multivitamins, which are crushed and blended into shrimp smoothies.

It is country-club living at its finest, but their presence is worth millions to the aquarium so it's money well spent.

Charlie seemed to appreciate my effort, but soon I was out of food and placed my empty palm before the hole to show there was no more.

He studied my face briefly, then reached through the hole and placed his paw on my palm, as if to imply that he understood.

At the end of the tour Mortensen said that because of protective measures, California now has about 2,500 wild sea otters.

Perhaps, I acknowledged, but there is still only one Charlie.

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