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March 09, 2013

Happy Birthday, River Otter Rio!

River Otter_blog
From her button nose to her long, tapering tail, North American river otter Rio rollicks and rolls in her Local Waters habitat, belying the fact that she turns 21 today.

Oh, the senior otter might be a little slower at times, reports Kathy Lee, one of the dozen aquarists and trainers on the river otter team that cares for Rio, but she’s as feisty as she ever was.

Rio Arrival Scan_blogEven when she arrived here in September 1992 (right) from the Little Rock (Arkansas) Zoo, where she was born, Rio was a high-spirited, adventurous pup, always nosing around. She continues to be curious, especially when she gets a whiff of a treat that has been hidden in her habitat by an otter team member for enrichment. 

Rio also enjoys chewing on, batting around and otherwise playing with an array of “otter-proof” toys, from sturdy staples like dog Kongs, stuffed with fish for her to paw and claw out, to car wash strips, to playthings devised by the animal care staffers.

IMG_4887_blogThe twice-daily sessions that are part of her regular care combine mealtime, training and playtime for physically and mentally stimulating experiences. They are also an opportunity for the trainers to observe her—Rio will present paws and open her mouth for examination on cue—and make notes on how many of her special handmade meatballs she ate, how she’s moving, her activity level and behavior, along with which toys she was given to play with to ensure that Rio has variety every day. (With a storage locker filled with her toys, it’s a safe bet the combinations are endless.)

After each session, the notes are input into Shedd’s animal care data-management system. The aquarists and trainers on the river otter team keep each other updated through these notes so that Rio receives seamless continuity of care. And, as otter team member Carol Rudin says, “The notes provide a heads-up from the previous session on what mood Rio is in.”

Cute as she is, she’s not cuddly. River otters are members of the Mustelidae family, along with such notoriously unhuggable critters as badgers and weasels. “Rio has marvelous teeth,” says Carol.

Once a week, the otter is weighed. She is directed into a “weight bin”—a large rubber tub placed on a scale—and on the cue of “hold,” she stands still so the bin is steady and the trainer can get an accurate reading. “She loves the bin,” Carol says. By regularly monitoring Rio’s weight—around 18 pounds—her team can quickly spot any sudden changes that might indicate a problem.

Happily, Rio is one healthy otter, especially for one her age. “We haven’t found any big geriatric-associated health issues that we need to address,” says Dr. Bill Van Bonn, vice president of animal health. So far she has not
IMG_4869_blogrequired any supplements for joint health, “which would not be uncommon for animals—or for people—of advancing maturity.”

She is scheduled for her annual physical in a few months, Dr. Bill adds. “She’ll have a good hands-on evaluation by the clinical veterinarians. They’ll listen to her heart and lungs, feel her to check for any masses, and take blood samples to evaluate how her kidneys are doing, how her liver is doing, how her adrenal glands are doing—a comprehensive exam. We’ll also take radiographs to check her joints.”

As with many of Shedd’s animals, Rio will be sedated during her exam, which gives the animal health team a chance to look at those marvelous teeth, too. Dr. Bill notes that the otter’s teeth are a little worn—commensurate with her age—but there’s no record of cavities. “I think the variety in her diet has helped her dental health. Crunching on whole fish—especially those fish heads that she loves—as well as gnawing on toys, helps to keep her teeth clean.”

Citing a paper from the American Society of Mammalogists, he says that river otters live eight or nine years in the wild, 13 tops, but have reached 25 years in aquariums and zoos. “We have quite a few geriatric animals at Shedd—more than I can name without looking into our records.” Most aquariums and zoos do, he adds.

“The more we learn about the issues that animals develop as they age, and the risk factors, the better we get at reducing those risk factors, and the more senior citizens we have. The medical profession has been able to influence human biological processes by understanding the reasons for mortality and addressing them, and the veterinary medicine community is doing the same thing with animals.”

Find out more about Rio in this archived blog from 2011. And be sure to say “hi” and “happy birthday” to her on your next Shedd visit.

Karen Furnweger, web editor

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