Langly is not like “all the otters.” The little-sea-mammal-who-could has triumphed over tragedy, and is now growing stronger by the day and enjoying life from “the otter side” of heartbreak thanks to the efforts of Marin County, California’s Marine Mammal Center.
On May 7, the young sea otter pup was found stranded alongside her mother in San Luis Obispo County. According to rescuers on the scene, it looked as though mom had sustained serious shark bite injuries.
The mother otter had expelled a great deal of energy in her efforts to get her offspring safely to shore. Sadly, the heroic otter mom lost a lot of blood and did not survive the emergency trip to the Marine Mammal Center hospital only 30 miles away.
Southern sea otters are already a threatened species, and attacks by great white sharks are a leading cause of mortality in this otter community. Even though otters are not the sharks’ meal of choice (researchers think the predators mistake them for seals), the initial bite is often proven lethal.
The Marine Mammal Center reports that these fatal encounters with sharks may be a factor limiting the sea otters’ recovery throughout California waters. Luckily for Langly the otter, by swiftly swimming her to shore, the mama had succeeded in protecting her baby from further harm, and aided in the orphan’s journey towards a new beginning.
Upon admission to the Center, veterinarians estimated that Langly (who was named by one of her volunteer rescuers) was about 4 months old. They also noted that she was alert, active and feisty. These were all positive indicators that the pup had a fighting chance at survival. Initially, Langly lost a little weight during her first month at the facility. This was mostly due to the youngster’s abrupt loss of her mother’s nourishing milk. But, through the course of her treatment, Langly’s strength and appetite has improved.
Fortunately, Langly was close to weaning age, so the switch from mom’s milk to a grown-up sea otter diet of scallops, crabs, shrimp and other crustaceans was imminent. The vets guessed she had been eating some of these foods already and would be a good candidate to make the full transition. After some trouble figuring out how to crack open the shellfish on her own, the team of animal care volunteers made it their mission to prepare Langly’s meals — cracking mussels, clamshells and removing crab and shrimp legs — six times a day to facilitate her transition to solid food. Success!
The Center staff reports that Langly has especially perked up now that two new otter companions, an older female named Pip and another yet-to-be-named baby girl friend, were introduced in mid-June — and the trio get along swimmingly. In particular, the two youngest otters formed an immediate strong bond. They are very attached to one another, interacting and playing constantly.
The unnamed young friend (who you can help name!) was originally stranded in Monterey, California, back in February. She was only a few months old and much too young to survive on her own. The orphan was starving, suffering from a severe parasite infection, couldn’t keep herself warm, and having seizures. On top of all that, test results indicated that she’d been exposed to the biotoxin domoic acid, which can lead to heart and brain damage.
Similarly, Pip is also in rehabilitation at the Center. She is battling toxoplasmosis, a potentially deadly condition caused by a parasite that mainly affects the brain. Toxoplasmosis is a significant cause of death in the southern sea otter species, and its effects have already threatened this population.
PEOPLE caught up with Dr. Cara Field, a Staff Veterinarian at The Marine Mammal Center, who assured us that although the three otters play and keep each other company, Pip cannot transmit toxoplasmosis to Langly or the other otter pup.
“Langly, her companion, and Pip are now all in the same rehabilitation pool at The Marine Mammal Center,” Dr. Field tells PEOPLE. “They are interactive with each other with interest and in a healthy way. Female otters are often seen together in the wild, so it is encouraging to see these normal interactions. Langly and her companion are both active and aggressive, which is very normal behavior for sea otters.”
Dr. Field says the Center has seen much improvement with the otters and is gearing up for their return to the sea.
“Each of the otters needs to be in good body condition before they are released back to the wild,” says Dr. Field. “The two pups will need to weigh about 25 pounds before they can be released. All three otters are still a bit underweight, but they are making good progress. Once they hit their target weight, we’ll surgically implant transmitters in their abdomen to track them post-release, observe them post-op for healing, and then release them. Release will likely happen in the next one to two months.”
The Center is confident that the two youngest otters can thrive even without their moms. “Throughout their rehabilitation they’ve demonstrated that they can eat and gain weight without their mothers, so that is an excellent sign that they are independent and can thrive in the wild,” Dr. Field tells PEOPLE.
Dr. Shawn Johnson, Director of Veterinary Science at The Marine Mammal Center, adds “Southern sea otters are a threatened species, and the opportunity to release these females back to the wild is a big boost to the future health of this threatened population and surrounding ecosystems. Each of these animals presents an opportunity to learn more about the threats they face in the wild and continue to improve rehabilitation efforts for this sentinel species.”
According to a release from the Center, approximately 20,000 southern sea otters may have lived along the coasts of California and Baja California in the past, but not anymore. For the last 40 years, southern sea otters have been listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, with the population estimated at just a few thousand. In May 2016, the southern sea otter’s range was reported as drastically reduced.
Finally, although otters are much beloved by humans and incredibly cute, the Center warns they can “pack a nasty bite, so we encourage the public to keep a safe distance when viewing them in the wild.” If you’re in the area, call The Marine Mammal Center’s hotline (415-289-SEAL) if you see a marine mammal that needs help.
You can read more about The Marine Mammal Center’s rescue, rehabilitation and release work with an otter named Otto back in 2017 here.