Thursday, February 21, 2008

Otter mother and child reunion

You look around frantically, but your child is missing. It’s a scenario that strikes terror into the heart of any parent.

We have no way of knowing if that’s what was happening to an otter mom in the surf off Moonstone Beach on Feb. 7. But we sure can guess.

According to rescuers from The Marine Mammal Center (TMMC), a baby otter was squealing loudly that day — not from the water, but from the rocks. Wisely, someone called center’s response hotline.

Trained volunteers P.J. Webb and Teri Woodhouse caught the call, and were soon joined by State Park Ranger Will Rushworth.

They couldn’t see the pup from the bluff. A witness showed the rescuers where the yowling otter was trapped, behind a rock in the rugged intertidal area just north of the boardwalk’s observation point.

Then the little otter stopped squealing — not a good sign.

By phone, TMMC’s rescue line and the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Otter Research and Conservation team told P.J., Teri and Will to attempt a rescue. P.J. and Will climbed down the bluff and found the pup trapped about 3 feet down in a narrow, twisted crevasse above a cave.

Ominously, the tide was beginning to turn. As it and the strong waves rose, water would crash down into the rock cave.

Time was getting short for the little otter. If the crooked crevasse filled with water, he could drown. As he fought to get out, he was falling further down toward the cave.

Protected by a towel and gloves because otters bite, P.J. reached for the pup and saw he already was showing signs of stress. He wasn’t happy about anyone trying to get him out of the cave, even though that certainly wasn’t where he wanted to be.

P.J. extricated him and carried the wriggling, snapping bundle up the bluff.

Teri, a trained medical staff rescuer, examined him very carefully. He was a male in good condition, of good weight and with a healthy appearance. Somehow, he had escaped injury in the jagged, rocky cave and rescuers had arrived soon enough to make a difference.

Otter veterinarians told the rescue team by phone to try reuniting the pup with his mother, a maneuver that’s rarely successful, unfortunately.

The eagle-eyed rescuers had spotted some adult otters swimming nearby, but didn’t yet know if one of them was looking for the baby. P.J. and Will loaded the pup into an animal carrier and headed for a protected tidepool. As Will and Teri scanned the sea to see if an adult otter would react, P.J. opened the carrier door.

Because the pup wasn’t yet making any noise to attract his mother, P.J. put him into the tidepool. Much to the rescuers’ relief, the little otter immediately began swimming and grooming in the water. As he became cooler and calmer in his natural surroundings, his physical condition improved and he started squealing those high-pitched, piercing sounds that baby otters use to connect with their mothers.

The pup struggled his way into and through the strong surf, making his way to where waves form. His benefactors stayed on high alert, ready to rescue him again if Mom didn’t show up.

The little swimmer was screaming up a storm … and finally an adult otter made a beeline for him.

The rescuers held their collective breath as the adult and the pup touched noses and greeted each other with cries and squeals. When the mama otter began grooming the pup, he stopped yelping and settled in for good bath … and maybe a “where did you go this time?” scolding.

The rescuers climbed back up the bluff “with an empty carrier and very happy hearts,” according to P.J.’s notes. She said it was a thrill to successfully reunite a mother and her offspring.

P.J. also was very relieved the rescued pup didn’t use his sharp teeth on her. “I credit good training (from TMMC) and fast reflexes in saving all 10 of my digits!”

Thanks to quick response from the public and the skill of trained rescuers, one tiny member of a threatened species had survived another day.

Thanks to P.J. Webb for sharing her memories of that wonderful reunion.

E-mail Kathe Tanner at

1 comment:

Diana said...

That was just incredibly sweet to read. Aren't humans wonderful? The fact that there are people that will race to help a little otter pup, risking their own safety to do so, is such sweet testament to human nature. So happy to hear it had a happy ending!!