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February 23, 2012

A Day in the Life of Shedd’s Sea Otter Pup: Grooming


Grooming is an important skill that sea otter pup Cayucos has had to develop. Since she arrived in January, the hour allotted for each of the pup’s seven, then six, and now five daily meals, has also given trainers a hands-on chance to groom her. She has also had separate grooming sessions throughout her day.

“She does pretty well grooming herself now, but she has still needed help sometimes with hard-to-reach areas of her coat,” says Lana Vanagasem, the assistant supervisor of penguins and sea otters, and one of Cayucos’s trainers.

Keeping the pup’s thick fur clean, dry and fluffed is essential to her survival. Sea otters are the only marine mammals that aren’t wrapped in an insulating blanket of blubber. Instead, they have about 1 million hairs per square inch of skin, divided into an outer layer of thick guard hairs and an inner layer of dense, wooly underfur honeycombed with millions of tiny air pockets. The layers work together to keep water out and body heat in. If the fur becomes matted or fouled with pollutants such as oil, cold sea water penetrates to the otter’s skin and the animal can quickly succumb to hypothermia. Otters shed their fur gradually and throughout the year so that they are never without this vital protection.

Like all other activities in the otter pup’s day, grooming sessions are designed to be fun. Lana uses a fluffy white towel if she needs to blot the water from the otter’s coat and then switches to an equally fluffy but easier-to-handle washcloth for the detailing. “We use a circular motion on a wet spot, separating the hairs and wiping the water. And we make our way over her body that way.”

She continues, “The sleepier Cayucos is, the more likely she is to let us groom areas that she isn’t that good at reaching yet, like her head and her belly. If she’s really awake, though, she prefers that we not go there.” Lana adds, “She hasn’t minded us doing her back. But she does it on her own a lot. We only do supplemental grooming now.”

CayucosCayucos rolls the fur between her front paws to wring out the water, combs and fluffs it with her front claws and then blows air into it. “You can hear her: phhhhhh, phhhhh,” the trainer says, imitating the sound. The pup also has her own kelp bed—really the long strips of compressed felt used in car washes, draped over the pool deck and hanging into the water—that she rolls on and rubs her fur against to groom.

During a recent grooming session, the otter was on her back in a tangle of purple felt strips, her head and flippers curled toward each other as she vigorously worked the water out of her tail and rump. Then, with the flexibility of a contortionist, she groomed the middle of her back. Sometimes, when grooming follows an active play session, the pup falls asleep while she still has her feet flopped over her head.

When the otter was smaller, grooming sessions could last up to 20 minutes, but these days, the 15-week-old pup is doing such a good job that a trainer might spend only a few minutes touching up her coat—or even less if a dry Cayucos decides to jump back into the water. “It all depends on her,” says Lana, laughing.

Because grooming takes place on the deck next to the pup pool, the trainers have not used a hair dryer, as they would with a smaller pup that could be placed on the table in what might be described as the layette room of the otter nursery. “We tried that, but whenever she was on the table, she wanted to explore and crawl around and sniff things” Lana says. “The deck of the pup pool was definitely the best place to groom her, just using towels.”

When the pup’s grooming needs were more intensive, trainers were running one, sometimes two loads of towels a day in the marine mammal department’s washer and dryer.

Cayucos will continue to get an extra hand in grooming for as long as she needs it. “We always give her coat a ‘reading,’ ” says Lana, to make sure that it’s evenly clean and fluffy, with no rough patches. “We still towel her occasionally and groom her if she lets us, but she has very few spots to work on these days. She’s probably close to not needing help grooming anymore.”

Cayucos is growing up fast.

Posted by Karen Furnweger, web editor

Find out how Cayucos eats.

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