The Monterey Bay Aquarium issued an apology on Twitter after people criticized them for being insensitive
Credit: Tyson V. Rininger/Monterey Bay Aquarium

An attempt to be cool and create an instant meme went very wrong for California aquarium this week.

On Tuesday, the Monterey Bay Aquarium shared a photo of their 11-year-old resident sea otter Abby adorably staring up at the camera.

Alongside the image of the photogenic water mammal, an employee of the aquarium wrote, “Abby is a thicc girl What an absolute unit She c h o n k Look at the size of this lady OH LAWD SHE COMIN Another Internetism !”

In a separate tweet, the employee added: “#bodypawsitivity”

But it turns out the tweet wasn’t taken so “pawsitively” after all, when people began criticizing the aquarium for their insensitive remarks about the otter’s weight and, more seriously, as the slang in it is often used to referring to black women’s bodies, being racially insensitive.

Some criticized the aquarium saying that the tweet was cultural appropriation and was aligning the bodies of black women with the bodies of animals.

Abby the Sea Otter
| Credit: Tyson V. Rininger/Monterey Bay Aquarium

The Internet backlash prompted the aquarium to issue an apology one day later in a four-message thread.

“Hey everyone. It has come to our attention that some of the references in this tweet are problematic and insensitive,” they wrote on Wednesday. “We’re posting here in the thread so that people who have engaged with this tweet will join us in our learning moment.”

“If our tweet alienated you, please know that we are deeply sorry, and that we offer our sincerest apologies,” they continued. “If you follow our feed, we often reference popular memes to talk about the ocean. In this case, the memes used had connotations we were unaware of until now.”

“In particular, several terms referenced originated from African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and specifically reference Black women’s bodies. Using them in a sea otter meme without that background makes insinuations we never intended. We need to do better,” the aquarium added.

“Our mission is to inspire conservation of the ocean, and we’re thankful for your support as we try to advance that mission on social media,” they finished. “We’re also thankful for those of you out there pointing out our blindspots and how we can improve. Thanks everyone.”

Although the photo made Abby appear to be overweight (she’s actually a healthy 46 lbs.), the aquarium’s curator of mammals, Christine DeAngelo, later clarified on the situation. Speaking to the LA Times, DeAngelo said that it was simply taken an extremely unflattering angle, which was unlike her usual put-together appearance.

“That’s not blubber or anything,” she told the paper. “It’s just the angle of her hips and the way she’s rolled. She’s one of our most photogenic animals.”

“We said, ‘Oh, my gosh, look at her!’ She’s not a big animal,” she added, touching upon the staff’s response to the viral photo.

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DeAngelo also explained that the photo was likely taken after one of Abby’s naps — the sea otter is often tired from working as a surrogate mother for orphaned sea otter pups, which she also was herself.

Abby, who was taken in and raised at SeaWorld, has gone on to raise five pups, with a sixth one she’s expected to care for arriving in January.