Welcome Selka, our Newest Resident Sea Otter
The newest member of our Sea Otter exhibit is a rescued California sea otter pup that survived a shark bite and has contributed to important research into understanding her species.
Selka is adjusting well to a busy life with her fellow otters and human trainers, and is on track to becoming our newest surrogate otter mother. Sea Otter Program staff rescued her in 2012 as a one-week old stranded pup. Two exhibit otters—first Mae, then Rosa—raised her behind the scenes, and we eventually released her into the wild.
Shortly after, we had to bring her back to the Aquarium when she stranded with severe shark bite injuries. She recovered and was released again. After several months, we brought her back due to health concerns and several interactions with people.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages this threatened species, deemed her non-releasable. We
transferred her to Long Marine Lab at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2014. During her two-year research sabbatical there, Selka provided scientists with a window into the previously unknown sensory and cognitive world of sea otter foraging behavior.
Now, Christopher Quintos, senior sea otter aquarist, is training Selka on exhibit manners and routines, and guiding her entry into becoming a surrogate mother for stranded pups that we'll return to the wild. Christopher joined the Aquarium in December 2013. He's been working with marine mammals for the past 17 years, caring for dolphins, seals, sea lions—and now sea otters.
We talked to Christopher about life with Selka, and what it's like to work with intelligent marine mammals.
Selka's doing very well. She's getting accustomed to life on exhibit, a new environment and different food items. She's eating very well—she's actually a little hefty!—she really does like all those extra treats we give her. Her training is right on pace if not further along than we anticipated.
Is she acclimating well to her exhibit mates?
Yes! One of her best friends right now is Ivy, who's very close in age. She's another youngster, and they get into a lot of trouble together, as otters tend to do. They spend a lot of time together, and at times Selka can be very concerned as to where Ivy is in the exhibit when the team is working with all the animals together. She wants to know what Ivy's up to.
How are you training Selka to be a surrogate mother?
We're not doing any active conditioning for her to be a surrogate mom. Just the fact that she's with other animals, like being with Ivy right now, is really good practice for when she's put with other unfamiliar or younger animals.
Her whole initiation into the surrogate program will be slow and at her own pace. We'll probably start her with some juvenile animals her age or younger and see how that goes. We're starting to see Selka show some material behavior toward some of her other exhibit mates, so it's very likely she will come to that maternal instinct on her own.
How's she doing with that training overall?
Excellent. She's very sharp and has incredible focus. She's already learned most of the standard exhibit behavior that we use with our other otters, and she's learned them in very short order. She comes to us with a great foundation and behavioral repertoire already, so she's just kind of generalizing a lot of what she already knows through the new contacts and environment. She really engages in training sessions and learns very quickly.
How do you go about establishing a relationship with a new exhibit animal?
By being the good guy! Establishing a relationship is key because a lot of the work we do with them is cooperative. We show up with treats and other things they like to establish a positive relationship with the things they want. We bring things that are reinforcing, that they find interesting or of value. Naturally they'll associate us with those things and then hopefully they're happy to see us. Then we just keep building on that positive relationship to shape that cooperative behavior.
Why is a relationship important between humans and exhibit animals?
It's the cooperative aspect. While the animals are on exhibit, we strive to teach them a wide variety of behaviors that allows us to take better care of them—show us a paw, let's see your flipper, open your mouth—things like that. It's much easier when you can have an animal participate in that voluntarily because they want to and because they trust you, versus doing it coercively.
A cooperative relationship increases safety and reduces stress for both the human and the animal. They're more willing to do something when they're OK with the situation, they're OK with the person asking, and it's no big deal.
Do sea otters pose particular challenges for marine mammal trainers?
Sea otters have this stigma that they have short attention spans and can be highly aggressive. Neither is incorrect, but I think it's unfortunate if you hold on to these stigmas, and don't really work with an animal to their full potential. Because quite honestly, like as with Selka, she has an incredible attention span, has a huge threshold for learning and the whole process of training, and she can stay in sessions that are much longer than some of our other exhibit animals are used to.
It all goes back to the foundation that's been laid in their overall training and the relationship you've formed. Selka came to us having done some research projects, and some of those investigations can be very time consuming, where she's doing things very repetitively and/or for a very long time. She does have a very good threshold for working and participating and just staying engaged because she wants to.
What surprises you about Selka specifically, or sea otters in general?
Don't put boundaries on what these animals are capable of based on their reputation. Selka's an incredibly sharp animal—very focused, very patient. What doesn't surprise me is that through consistency, patience and a good relationship those kind of things are achievable. It also doesn't surprise me that she's doing as well as she is. We're moving on her time and we just love having her here. She's great. And look—she's so cute and fuzzy.
Can they tell the difference between trainers?
Yes, I think so. It's difficult to explain, but one of the phrases we use in the industry sometimes is "substitute teacher syndrome." A new handler comes in that is, in theory, trained, and it's like "Oh, you're not the teacher! I'm going to try and slide this one in here..." They definitely do that. Do they recognize us through voice, through recognition? My guess is yes. Some animals won't perform as well for certain handlers and some will do anything.
What's your favorite story from the sea otter exhibit?
This is before my time, but I've heard stories of some of the other otters—like Kit—who would excavate weak points in the concrete of the exhibit and very proudly present them to the animal care team. "Look—I did this for you! I saved you the time of getting them, and here they are, they're all lined up!" Getting to know Kit, and the type of animal Kit is and probably was, I find that just hysterical.
When we engage with the public, people really enjoy hearing these anecdotes because it helps them understand why it's important to provide enrichments for their physical stimulation, their mental stimulation. We want to keep the exhibit intact, so play with these things instead. It's also a creative outlet for us to provide new challenging and stimulating enrichments. Sometimes we can work for 45 minutes to put something together, and 30 seconds later, it's undone.
There's never a dull moment here. It's always something new and fun watching them engage with those enrichments or interacting with each other, or like Abby there about to go into naptime, sucking her paw. It really never gets old.
Why does Abby suck her paw?
It's a soothing behavior. My bet is she probably got that from her mom. One of the pups that Abby's raised through the surrogacy program picked that up from her. I think pups are very impressionable from early on with their moms. What mom does, I'm going to mimic. It's important that they do pick up those skills, too, because learning how to get into live prey items like a crab or a mussel or a clam is an important skill they need to survive. That's ultimately why the surrogacy program works. We have experienced females who have these vital skills they can pass onto the next generation.
If you could be a marine mammal, what would you be?
As somebody who respects the ocean, I know that it's tough out there, and I'd hope to be at the top of the food chain—probably a killer whale because I'd have a good chance of surviving.
If I was an aquarium marine mammal, I'd probably like to be a sea lion. Everybody loves sea lions. They're fun-loving, they come and go between land and the sea, pretty athletic. Easy-going life.
Of course if I was here at the Monterey Bay Aquarium I'd want to be a sea otter. We have people I can engage with—or not—lots of treats, lots of stimulation and good naps.
Table of Contents
- Director's Note
- Our Surrogate-Raised Sea Otters are Helping to Restore a Wetland
- Grappling with Ocean Plastic Pollution: Past, Present and Future
- What's New: Our New Director of Science and an Update on our new Center for Ocean Education and Leadership
- Online Exclusive: Welcome Selka, our Newest Resident Sea Otter
- Memorial and Tribute Gifts